Inventing a way to see attosecond electron motions with an X-ray laser

Called XLEAP, the new method will provide sharp views of electrons in chemical processes that take place in billionths of a billionth of a second and drive crucial aspects of life.

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have invented a way to observe the movements of electrons with powerful X-ray laser bursts just 280 attoseconds, or billionths of a billionth of a second, long.

The technology, called X-ray laser-enhanced attosecond pulse generation (XLEAP), is a big advance that scientists have been working toward for years, and it paves the way for breakthrough studies of how electrons speeding around molecules initiate crucial processes in biology, chemistry, materials science and more.
The team presented their method today in an article in Nature Photonics.

“Until now, we could precisely observe the motions of atomic nuclei, but the much faster electron motions that actually drive chemical reactions were blurred out,” said SLAC scientist James Cryan, one of the paper’s lead authors and an investigator with the Stanford PULSE Institute, a joint institute of SLAC and Stanford University. “With this advance, we’ll be able to use an X-ray laser to see how electrons move around and how that sets the stage for the chemistry that follows. It pushes the frontiers of ultrafast science.”

Image: A SLAC-led team has invented a method, called XLEAP, that generates powerful low-energy X-ray laser pulses that are only 280 attoseconds, or billionths of a billionth of a second, long and that can reveal for the first time the fastest motions of electrons that drive chemistry. This illustration shows how the scientists use a series of magnets to transform an electron bunch (blue shape at left) at SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source into a narrow current spike (blue shape at right), which then produces a very intense attosecond X-ray flash (yellow).
Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

>Read more on the Linear Coherent Light Source (SLAC) website