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  • 2017-05-30 12:05:59
  • Article ID: 675521

The World's Most Powerful X-Ray Laser Beam Creates 'Molecular Black Hole'

When the X-rays blast electrons out of one atom, stripping the molecule from the inside out, it steals more from its neighbors - a new insight that could help advance high-res imaging of whole viruses, bacteria and complex materials.

  • Credit: DESY/Science Communication Lab

    The extremely intense X-ray flash knocks so many electrons out of the iodine atom (right) such that it pulls in the electrons of the methyl group (left) like an elecetromagnetic version of a black hole, before finally spitting them out.

Menlo Park, Calif. — When scientists at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory focused the full intensity of the world’s most powerful X-ray laser on a small molecule, they got a surprise: A single laser pulse stripped all but a few electrons out of the molecule’s biggest atom from the inside out, leaving a void that started pulling in electrons from the rest of the molecule, like a black hole gobbling a spiraling disk of matter.

Within 30 femtoseconds – millionths of a billionth of a second – the molecule lost more than 50 electrons, far more than scientists anticipated based on earlier experiments using less intense beams, or isolated atoms. Then it blew up. 

The results, published today in Nature, give scientists fundamental insights they need to better plan and interpret experiments using the most intense and energetic X-ray pulses from SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray free-electron laser. Experiments that require these ultrahigh intensities include attempts to image individual biological objects, such as viruses and bacteria, at high resolution. They are also used to study the behavior of matter under extreme conditions, and to better understand charge dynamics in complex molecules for advanced technological applications.

“For any type of experiment you do that focuses intense X-rays on a sample, you want to understand how it reacts to the X-rays,” said Daniel Rolles of Kansas State University. “This paper shows that we can understand and model the radiation damage in small molecules, so now we can predict what damage we will get in other systems.”

Like Focusing the Sun Onto a Thumbnail

The experiment, led by Rolles and Artem Rudenko of Kansas State, took place at LCLS’s Coherent X-ray Imaging instrument. CXI delivers X-rays with the highest possible energies achievable at LCLS, known as hard X-rays, and records data from samples in the instant before the laser pulse destroys them. 

How intense are those X-ray pulses?

“They are about a hundred times more intense than what you would get if you focused all the sunlight that hits the Earth’s surface onto a thumbnail,” said LCLS staff scientist and co-author Sebastien Boutet.

X-rays Trigger Electron Cascades

For this study, researchers used special mirrors to focus the X-ray beam into a spot just over 100 nanometers in diameter – about a hundredth the size of the one used in most CXI experiments, and a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair. They looked at three types of samples: individual xenon atoms, which have 54 electrons each, and two types of molecules that each contain a single iodine atom, which has 53 electrons. 

Heavy atoms around this size are important in biochemical reactions, and researchers sometimes add them to biological samples to enhance contrast for imaging and crystallography applications. But until now, no one had investigated how the ultra-intense CXI beam affects molecules with atoms this heavy.

The team tuned the energy of the CXI pulses so they would selectively strip the innermost electrons from the xenon or iodine atoms, creating “hollow atoms.” Based on earlier studies with less energetic X-rays, they thought cascades of electrons from the outer parts of the atom would drop down to fill the vacancies, only to be kicked out themselves by subsequent x-rays. That would leave just a few of the most tightly bound electrons. And, in fact, that’s what happened in both the freestanding xenon atoms and the iodine atoms in the molecules.

But in the molecules, the process didn’t stop there. The iodine atom, which had a strong positive charge after losing most of its electrons, continued to suck in electrons from neighboring carbon and hydrogen atoms, and those electrons were also ejected, one by one.

Rather than losing 47 electrons, as would be the case for an isolated iodine atom, the iodine in the smaller molecule lost 54, including the ones it grabbed from its neighbors – a level of damage and disruption that’s not only higher than would normally be expected, but significantly different in nature.

Results Feed Into Theory to Improve Experiments

“We think the effect was even more important in the larger molecule than in the smaller one, but we don’t know how to quantify it yet,” Rudenko said. “We estimate that more than 60 electrons were kicked out, but we don’t actually know where it stopped because we could not detect all the fragments that flew off as the molecule fell apart to see how many electrons were missing. This is one of the open questions we need to study.”

For the data analyzed to date, the theoretical model provided excellent agreement with the observed behavior, providing confidence that more complex systems can now be studied, said LCLS director Mike Dunne. “This has important benefits for scientists wishing to achieve the highest resolution images of biological molecules (for example, to inform the development of better pharmaceuticals). These experiments also guide the development of a next-generation instrument for the LCLS-II upgrade project, which will provide a major leap in capability due to the increase in repetition rate from 120 pulses per second to 1 million.”  

The theory work for the study was led by Robin Santra of the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science at DESY and the University of Hamburg in Germany. Other research institutions contributing to the study were Tohoku University in Japan; Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Hamburg Center for Ultrafast Imaging and the National Metrology Institute (PTB) in Germany; the University of Science and Technology in Beijing; Aarhus University in Denmark; Sorbonne University in France; the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory; the University of Chicago; and Northwestern University. Funding for the research came from the DOE Office of Science [Basic Energy Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Geosciences and Biosciences Division] and from the German Research Foundation (DFG).

SLAC is a multi-program laboratory exploring frontier questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. Located in Menlo Park, California, SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. To learn more, please visit www.slac.stanford.edu.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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High-Speed Movie Aids Scientists Who Design Glowing Molecules

In a recent experiment conducted at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a research team used bright, ultrafast X-ray pulses from SLAC's X-ray free-electron laser to create a high-speed movie of a fluorescent protein in action. With that information, the scientists began to design a marker that switches more easily, a quality that can improve resolution during biological imaging.

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Scientists Make Atoms-Thick Post-It Notes for Solar Cells and Circuits

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Titan Helps Researchers Suck Mystery Out of Cell's 'Vacuum Cleaners'

In cancer cells, a membrane transport protein called P-glycoprotein, or Pgp, actively pumps anticancer drugs out of the cell, contributing to multidrug resistance. Recently, a team led by computational biophysicist Emad Tajkhorshid from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) used the Titan supercomputer to uncover new details about Pgp that could help the drug discovery community manipulate Pgp function.

Laser-Free Method of Ion Cooling Has Range of Potential Uses

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Tiny Lasers from a Gallery of Whispers

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Copper Catalyst Yields High Efficiency CO2-to-Fuels Conversion

Berkeley Lab scientists have developed a new electrocatalyst that can directly convert carbon dioxide into multicarbon fuels and alcohols using record-low inputs of energy. The work is the latest in a round of studies coming out of Berkeley Lab tackling the challenge of a creating a clean chemical manufacturing system that can put carbon dioxide to good use.

Solar-to-Fuel System Recycles CO2 to Make Ethanol and Ethylene

Berkeley Lab scientists have harnessed the power of photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into fuels and alcohols at efficiencies far greater than plants. The achievement marks a significant advance in the effort to move toward sustainable sources of fuel.

New Evidence for Small, Short-Lived Drops of Early Universe Quark-Gluon Plasma?

UPTON, NY--Particles emerging from even the lowest energy collisions of small deuterons with large heavy nuclei at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC)--a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility for nuclear physics research at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory--exhibit behavior scientists associate with the formation of a soup of quarks and gluons, the fundamental building blocks of nearly all visible matter.

New Insights Into Nanocrystal Growth in Liquid

PNNL researchers have measured the forces that cause certain crystals to assemble, revealing competing factors that researchers might be able to control. The work has a variety of implications in both discovery and applied science. In addition to providing insights into the formation of minerals and semiconductor nanomaterials, it might also help scientists understand soil as it expands and contracts through wetting and drying cycles.


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PPPL Physicist Francesca Poli Named ITER Scientist Fellow

Article describes new ITER Scientist Fellow.

Los Alamos Gains Role in High-Performance Computing for Materials Program

A new high-performance computing initiative announced this week by the U.S. Department of Energy will help U.S. industry accelerate the development of new or improved materials for use in severe environments.

UK Commits $88 Million to LBNF/DUNE in First-Ever Umbrella Science Agreement with U.S.

The UK has committed $88 million to the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment as part of an umbrella science and technology agreement with the United States.

Wayne State Receives $1.2 Million NSF Grant to Develop Autonomous Battery Operating System

Researchers at Wayne State University led by Nathan Fisher, associate professor of computer science in the College of Engineering, received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to address the need for effective, integrative battery operating systems that provide sustained and reliable power.

UAH leads effort that secures $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation

A partnership comprising nine universities in Alabama, including The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) as the lead institution, has been awarded a $20 million, five-year grant by the National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

Sandia Labs Wins 5 Regional Technology Transfer Awards

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Tulane Receives Grant to Reduce Auto Emissions

Members of Tulane University's Shantz Lab will work with industrial scientists to assist in the development of next-generation materials designed to reduce harmful automotive emissions. The three-year old lab and its group of students have received a grant and equipment resources from SACHEM, Inc., a chemical science company.

Lab Leads New Effort in Materials Development

Lawrence Livermore National Lab will be part of a multi-lab effort to apply high-performance computing to US-based industry's discovery, design, and development of materials for severe environments under a new initiative announced by the Department of Energy (DOE) on Sept. 19.

ORNL Innovation Crossroads Program Opens Second Round of Energy Entrepreneurial Fellowships

Entrepreneurs are invited to apply for the second round of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Innovation Crossroads program.

Los Alamos Recognized as Top Diversity Employer

For the second straight year, Los Alamos National Laboratory was recognized as a top diversity employer by LATINA Style and STEM Workforce Diversity magazine.


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Fungi: Gene Activator Role Discovered

Specific modifications to fungi DNA may hold the secret to turning common plant degradation agents into biofuel producers.

First Look at a Living Cell Membrane

Neutrons provide the solution to nanoscale examination of living cell membrane and confirm the existence of lipid rafts.

High Yield Biomass Conversion Strategy Ready for Commercialization

Researchers convert 80 percent of biomass into high-value products with strategy that's ready for commercialization.

Consequences of Drought Stress on Biofuels

Switchgrass cultivated during a year of severe drought inhibited microbial fermentation and resulting biofuel production.

Clay Minerals and Metal Oxides Change How Uranium Travels Through Sediments

Montmorillonite clays prevent uranium from precipitating from liquids, letting it travel with groundwater.

Tundra Loses Carbon with Rapid Permafrost Thaw

Seven-year-study shows plant growth does not sustainably balance carbon losses from solar warming and permafrost thaw.

Crystals Grow by Twisting, Aligning and Snapping Together

Van der Waals force, which that enables tiny crystals to grow, could be used to design new materials.

Vitamin B12 Fuels Microbial Growth

Scarce compound, vitamin B12, is key for cellular metabolism and may help shape microbial communities that affect environmental cycles and bioenergy production.

Carbon in Floodplain Unlikely to Cycle into the Atmosphere

Microbes leave a large fraction of carbon in anoxic sediments untouched, a key finding for understanding how watersheds influence Earth's ecosystem.

Bacterial Cell Wall Changes Produce More Fatty Molecules

New strategy greatly increases the production and secretion of biofuel building block lipids in bacteria able to grow at industrial scales.


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