Athos just got even better

An upgrade at the soft X-ray beamline of the free electron laser SwissFEL will open up new experimental capabilities. Using an external laser system to ‘seed’ the emission of X-ray photons, and thus imprint well-defined optical properties on the beam, the upgrade gives the Athos beamline unprecedented stability. With this, ultra-fast ‘attosecond’ timescales that probe the movements of electrons in chemical reactions become possible.

Free electron lasers (FELs) in the X-ray regime, such as the X-ray free electron laser SwissFEL, produce short pulses of brilliant light that give unique insights into the structure and dynamics of materials through so-called ‘molecular movies’. The Athos beamline of SwissFEL produces so-called ‘soft’ X-rays whose comparatively low photon energies are useful for studying the interactions between molecules.

A limitation for the Athos beamline, as for almost all FELs, is stability. The reason for this comes down to the process by which light is made: a process called self-amplified spontaneous emission (SASE). In a FEL, electrons, accelerated to close to the speed of the light, are wiggled by a series of magnets, called undulators. Once wiggling, they produce photons: at SwissFEL, in the form of X-rays. SASE describes the process by which these photons repeatedly interact with the electron beam and stimulate – or ‘seed’ – the emission of more photons in subsequent parts of the electron beam. The spontaneous emission of radiation in this way is a stochastic process. This means that the X-ray beam created is inherently unstable, characterised by variations in wavelength and pulse energy.

Thanks to funding from the European Research Council (ERC), a new upgrade of Athos tackles this fundamental challenge of X-ray FELs. The upgrade forms part of the HERO project, which in 2018 was awarded a prestigious Synergy grant of 14 million Euros and incorporates principal investigators from PSI, EPFL, ETHZ and Stockholm. Standing for ‘Hidden, Entangled and Resonating Orders’, the HERO project, which is coordinated by PSI, aims to uncover hidden quantum properties in materials that cannot be studied with existing methods. The HERO upgrade of the Athos beamline will enable such new insights.

“What is demonstrated here is the power of funding for blue-skies research that the ERC uniquely provides to associated countries,” states Gabriel Aeppli, head of the Photon Science Division at PSI, who is the coordinating principal investigator for the HERO project.

Bringing Athos in line

In a classroom, one particularly well-behaved child can serve as a role model for all the children. In a similar vein, at the Athos beamline, the upgrade uses an external laser to imprint its well-behaved properties on the FEL beam. Instead of relying on the stochastic, spontaneous emission of radiation, a ‘seed-laser’ interacts with the wiggling electron beam to amplify the emission of radiation. As this external, optical laser has a well-defined pulse and coherence properties, it can transfer these to the emitted X-rays.

There is a reason that an X-ray FEL has never before been externally seeded. “Although the principle of ‘seeding’ a FEL is not entirely new, seeding a FEL at an energy range as high as this is,” explains Alexandre Trisorio, head of the gun laser group, who developed the seed-laser system. “The trouble is that there are no external laser sources that operate in the right wavelength range”.

To get around this, the scientists – through some serious feats of electron bunch gymnastics and tricks of the light – are employing a technique known as echo-enabled high-harmonic generation (EEHG), whereby higher frequency resonances are created that seed the FEL. The full upgrade is a two phase project, the first of which has now been successfully completed.

Read more on the PSI website

Image: An X-ray FEL cannot be seeded with a simple optical laser: there is none that can deliver a short enough wavelength. So, more complicated techniques are required. In a dedicated room alongside the Athos beamline, an 11m optical bench will host two titanium sapphire seed laser systems. Martin Huppert fine tunes the first of these, installed in the first phase of the HERO upgrade.

Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute / Markus Fischer