Who stole the light?

Self-induced ultrafast demagnetization limits the amount of light diffracted from magnetic samples at soft x-ray energies.

Free electron X-ray lasers deliver intense ultrashort pulses of x-rays, which can be used to image nanometer-scale objects in a single shot. When the x-ray wavelength is tuned to an electronic resonance, magnetization patterns can be made visible. However, using increasingly intense pulses, the magnetization image fades away. The mechanism responsible for this loss in resonant magnetic scattering intensity has now been clarified.

A team of researchers from Max Born Institute Berlin (Germany), Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (Germany), Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste (Italy) and Sorbonne Université (France), has now precisely recorded the dependence of the resonant magnetic scattering intensity as a function of the x-ray intensity incident per unit area (the “fluence”) on a ferromagnetic domain sample. Via integration of a device to detect the intensity of every single shot hitting the actual sample area, they were able record the scattering intensity over three orders of magnitude in fluence with unprecedented precision, in spite of the intrinsic shot-to-shot variations of the x-ray beam hitting the tiny samples. The experiments with soft x-rays were carried out at the FERMI free-electron x-ray laser in Trieste, Italy.

In the results presented in the journal Physical Review Letters, the researchers show that while the loss in magnetic scattering in resonance with the Co 2p core levels has been attributed to stimulated emission in the past, for scattering in resonance with the shallower Co 3p core levels this process is not significant. The experimental data over the entire fluence range are well described by simply considering the actual demagnetization occurring within each magnetic domain, which the experimental team had previously characterized with laser-based experiments. Given the short lifetime of the Co 3p core, dominated by Auger decay, it is likely that the hot electrons generated by the Auger cascade, in concert with subsequent electron scattering events, lead to a reshuffling of spin up and spin down electrons transiently quenching the magnetization.

Read more on the ELETTRA website

Image:  Schematic sketch of the scattering experiment with two competing processes. The soft x-ray beam (blue line) hits the magnetic sample where it scatters from the microscopic, labyrinth-like magnetization pattern. In this process, an x-ray photon is first absorbed by a Co 3p core level (1). The resulting excited state can then relax either spontaneously (2), emitting a photon in a new direction (purple arrow), or by means the interaction with a second photon via stimulated emission (3). In this last case, the photons are emitted in the direction of the incident beam (blue arrow towards right). 

Liquid carbon can be disclosed if one is ultrafast enough

At the FERMI FEL, beamline EIS-TIMEX, a novel approach combining FEL and fs-laser radiation has been developed for generating liquid carbon under controlled conditions and monitoring its properties of at the atomic scale. The method has been put to the test depositing a huge amount (5 eV/atom, 40 MJ/kg) of optical energy delivered by an ultrashort laser pulse (less than 100 fs, 10-13 s) into a self-standing amorphous carbon foil (a-C, thickness about 80 nm) and subsequently probing the excited sample volume with the FEL pulse varying both the FEL photon energy across the C K-edge (~ 283 eV) and delay between FEL and laser. A time-resolved x-ray absorption spectroscopy (tr-XAS, Fig. 2a) has been obtained of l-C with a record time resolution of less than 100 fs.

This method allowed researchers to monitor the formation of the liquid carbon phase at a temperature of 14200 K and pressure of 0.5 Mbar occurring in about 300 fs after absorption of the laser pump pulse as an effect of the constant volume (isochoric) heating of the carbon sample.

Read more on the ELETTRA website

Image: Artistic image illustrating the ultrafast laser-heating process used to generate liquid carbon in the laboratory. Illustration: Emiliano Principi.

Captured in the act: Free Electron Laser sheds light on ultrafast relaxation of superfluid helium nanodroplets

Superfluid He nanodroplets are ideal model systems for studying the photodynamics of weakly-bound nanostructures, both experimentally and theoretically; in most cases, superfluidity results in slow relaxation of energy and angular momentum. Using ultrashort tunable XUV pulses, it is now possible to follow the relaxation dynamics of excited helium nanodroplets in great detail.

The relaxation of photoexcited nanosystems is a fundamental process of light-matter interaction. Depending on the couplings of the internal degrees of freedom, relaxation can be ultrafast, converting electronic energy into atomic motion within a few fs, or slow, if the energy is trapped in a metastable state that decouples from its environment. An international research team from Germany, Spain, Italy, the USA, and the local team at the FERMI free-electron laser (FEL), studied helium nanodroplets resonantly excited by femtosecond extreme-ultraviolet (XUV) pulses from FERMI. The researchers found that, despite their superfluid nature, helium nanodroplets in their lower electronically excited states undergo ultrafast relaxation by forming a void bubble, which eventually bursts at the droplet surface thereby ejecting a single metastable helium atom. These results help understanding how nanoparticles interact with energetic radiation, as happens when single nanoparticles are directly imaged at hard-x-ray FEL facilities.

Read more on the Elettra website

Image: Figure left: Simulated density distribution of a helium nanodroplet shorty after it is excited by an XUV laser pulse (Courtesy by M. Barranco). Figure right: Measured photoelectron spectra showing ultrafast energy relaxation within less than a picosecond.

Laser, camera, action: Ultrafast ring opening of thiophenone tracked by time-resolved XUV photoelectron spectroscopy

Light-induced ring opening reactions form the basis of important biological processes such as vitamin D synthesis, and are also touted as promising candidates for the development of molecular switches. In recent years, new time-resolved techniques have emerged to investigate these processes with unprecedented temporal and spatial resolution.

An international research team from the USA, UK, Germany, Sweden, Australia, and the local team at the FERMI free-electron laser, combined time-resolved photoelectron spectroscopy with high-level electronic structure and molecular dynamics calculations to unravel the dynamics of a prototypical reaction along the full photochemical cycle of a ring molecule (thiophenone) – from photoexcitation, ring opening, all the way through to the subsequent ground state dynamics, and spanning a range of tens of femtoseconds  to hundreds of picoseconds. “These processes have intrigued the photochemistry community for decades” says Prof. Daniel Rolles from Kansas State University “and it is now routinely possible to visualize electronic changes and the movement of atoms in the molecule at each step of a chemical reaction”.

Read more on the ELETTRA website

Image: Artistic rendering of the photo-induced ring opening of thiophenone (left) into several open-ring products (right). The thin white lines show smoothed paths of actual trajectories. Illustration: KSU, Daniel Roles.

Study at FLASH: XUV lasing from exploding noble-gas nanoclusters

New mechanism of XUV light amplification

An international team of scientists, headed by Nina Rohringer from DESY and Unversität Hamburg, has succeeded in getting bursts of laser-like extreme ultraviolet (XUV) emission from noble-gas clusters in the transient warm dense matter state. Xenon clusters were irradiated by DESY’s free-electron laser FLASH, and the resulting strongly amplified fluorescence signal was analysed by a high-resolution spectrometer. Theoretical modeling of the process indicates that the clusters, transformed to a nanometer-sized plasma (‘nanoplasma’), enable the creation of population inversion by means of electron-ion collisions. The transient but sizeable population inversion of the ensemble of clusters enables amplification of spontaneous emission in a single pass of the emitted XUV radiation. This study, performed at the CAMP station of the FLASH beamline BL1 at DESY, is published in Physical Review A and is highlighted as an Editors’ Suggestion.

>Read more on the FLASH website

Image: Excited noble-gas clusters stimulate lasting emission in the forward direction. (Credit: Original publication in Phys. Reb. A (2020))

Day of Light: 60th anniversary of the laser

The invention of the laser 60 years ago has transformed science and everyday life.

Sixty years after the first laser was operated on 16 May 1960 by Theodore Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories in California, lasers have revolutionized everyday life as well as science. Lasers are also fundamental for research at the European XFEL. A public event on the European XFEL campus planned to celebrate this anniversary has been postponed to a later date.

When the world’s biggest X-ray laser and one of the planet’s brightest light sources, the European XFEL, started operation in 2017, it was the culmination of several decades of scientific progress in laser and X-ray laser technology. Lasers operating in the visible wavelength range were invented in the 1960s. In these lasers, radiation is generated from electron transitions in atoms or molecules. The light emitted is then continuously amplified between mirrors. This makes it comparatively easy to produce high-quality laser light, and many applications now shape our everyday lives. Examples range from impressive light installations, to high precision surgical instruments, broadband telecommunication, components in the electrical devices we carry in our pockets, and the laser pointer we use during presentations.

Read more on the XFEL website

Image: The optical laser system for pump-probe experiments in the laser lab.

Credit: European XFEL / Jan Hosan

First direct look at how light excites electrons to kick off a chemical reaction

Light-driven reactions are at the heart of human vision, photosynthesis and solar power generation. Seeing the very first step opens the door to observing chemical bonds forming and breaking.

The first step in many light-driven chemical reactions, like the ones that power photosynthesis and human vision, is a shift in the arrangement of a molecule’s electrons as they absorb the light’s energy. This subtle rearrangement paves the way for everything that follows and determines how the reaction proceeds.
Now scientists have seen this first step directly for the first time, observing how the molecule’s electron cloud balloons out before any of the atomic nuclei in the molecule respond.

While this response has been predicted theoretically and detected indirectly, this is the first time it’s been directly imaged with X-rays in a process known as molecular movie-making, whose ultimate goal is to observe how both electrons and nuclei act in real time when chemical bonds form or break.

>Read more on the LCLS at SLAC website

Image: extract, full image here

In search of the lighting material of the future

At the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI, researchers have gained insights into a promising material for organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). The substance enables high light yields and would be inexpensive to produce on a large scale – that means it is practically made for use in large-area room lighting. Researchers have been searching for such materials for a long time. The newly generated understanding will facilitate the rapid and cost-efficient development of new lighting appliances in the future. The study appears today in the journal Nature Communications.

The compound is a yellowish solid. If you dissolve it in a liquid or place a thin layer of it on an electrode and then apply an electric current, it gives off an intense green glow. The reason: The molecules absorb the energy supplied to them and gradually emit it again in the form of light. This process is called electroluminescence. Light-emitting diodes are based on this principle.

Read more on the Swiss FEL and Swiss Light Source website

Image: Grigory Smolentsev in front of SwissFEL

Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute/Mahir Dzambegovic

Super laser delivered to European XFEL

High Energy laser will enable study of exoplanet interiors.

A keenly awaited piece of high-tech equipment has been delivered to European XFEL. The high repetition rate, high-energy laser, DiPOLE 100-X, was developed in the UK by scientists and engineers at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Central Laser Facility (CFL) as part of the UK contribution to the facility. This unique laser, developed within the framework of the HiBEF user consortium, will be used at the instrument for High-Energy Density (HED) science at European XFEL to generate extreme temperatures and pressures in materials. The atomic structure and dynamics of these extreme states of materials can then be studied using the extremely bright and intense X-ray pulses produced by the European XFEL. This experimental set-up will enable scientists to create conditions similar to the interior of exoplanets with temperatures of up to 10,000°C, and pressures of up to 10,000 tons per square centimeter – similar to the weight of 2000 adult elephants concentrated onto the surface of a postage stamp!

>Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: The HED instrument at European XFEL.
Credit: European XFEL/Jan Hosan

Shaping attosecond waveforms

Scientists show how to control attosecond light pulses at a free-electron laser.

Chemical reactions and complex phenomena in liquids and solids are determined by the movement and rearrangement of electrons. These movements, however, occur on an extremely short timescale, typically only a few hundred attoseconds (1 attosecond =10-18 s or one quintillionth of a second).  Only light pulses of a comparable duration can be used to take snapshots of the dynamics of electrons. An international team of researchers led by Guiseppe Sansone from the University of Freiburg and including scientists from European XFEL have now, for the first time, been able to reliably generate, control and characterize such attosecond light pulses from a free-electron laser.

“These pulses enable us to study the first moment of the electronic response in a molecule or crystal,” explains Sansone. “With the ability to shape the electric field enables us to control electronic movements – with the long-term goal of optimising basic processes such as photosynthesis or charge separation in materials.”

>Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: Scientists have been able to shape the electric field of an attosecond light pulse.
Credit: Jürgen Oschwald and Carlo Callegari

Scientists observe ultrafast birth of free radicals in water

What they learned could lead to a better understanding of how ionizing radiation can damage material systems, including cells.

Understanding how ionizing radiation interacts with water—like in water-cooled nuclear reactors and other water-containing systems—requires glimpsing some of the fastest chemical reactions ever observed.

In a new study conducted at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, researchers have witnessed for the first time the ultrafast proton transfer reaction following ionization of liquid water. The findings, published today in Science, are the result of a world-wide collaboration led by scientists at the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) and the German research center DESY.

The proton transfer reaction is a process of great significance to a wide range of fields, including nuclear engineering, space travel and environmental remediation. This observation was made possible by the availability of ultrafast X-ray free electron laser pulses, and is basically unobservable by other ultrafast methods. While studying the fastest chemical reactions is interesting in its own right, this observation of water also has important practical implications.

>Read more on the LCLS at SLAC website

Image: X-rays capture the ultrafast proton transfer reaction in ionized liquid water, forming the hydroxyl radical (OH) and the hydronium (H3O+) ion. Credit: Argonne National Laboratory

First molecular movies at European XFEL

Scientists show how to use extremely short X-ray pulses to make the first movies of molecular processes at the European XFEL.

In a paper published today in Nature Methods, scientists show how to effectively use the high X-ray pulse repetition rate of the European XFEL to produce detailed molecular movies. This type of information can help us to better understand, for example, how a drug molecule reacts with proteins in a human cell, or how plant proteins store light energy.

Traditional structural biology methods use X-rays to produce snapshots of the 3D structure of molecules such as proteins. Although valuable, this information does not reveal details about the dynamics of biomolecular processes. If several snapshots can be taken in fast enough succession, however, these can be pasted together to make a so-called molecular movie. The high repetition rate of the extremely short X-ray pulses produced by the European XFEL makes it now possible to collect large amounts of data to produce movies with more frames than ever before. An international group of scientists have now worked out how to make optimal use of the European XFEL’s very high X-ray repetition rate to make these molecular movies at the facility in order to reveal unprecedented details of our world.

>Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: Artistic visualisation of a serial crystallography experiment. A stream of crystalline proteins are struck by an optical laser that initiates a reaction. Following a short delay the X-ray laser strikes the crystals. The information recorded about the arrangement of the atoms in the protein is used to reconstruct a model of the structure of the protein.
Credit: European XFEL / Blue Clay Studios

Using European XFEL to shed light on photosynthesis

First membrane protein studied at European XFEL

In a paper now published in Nature Communications an international group of scientists show that the fast X-ray pulse rate produced by the European XFEL can be used to study the structure of membrane proteins such as those involved in the process of photosynthesis. These results open up eagerly awaited experimental opportunities for scientists studying these types of proteins.

Large proteins and protein complexes are difficult to study with traditional structural biology approaches. Large protein complexes, such as those that sit across cell membranes and regulate traffic in and out of cells, are difficult to crystalize and generally only produce small crystals that are hard to analyse. The extremely fast X-ray pulses generated by European XFEL now enable scientists to collect large amounts of data from a stream of small crystals to develop detailed models of the 3D structure of these proteins.

>Read more on the European XFEL website

Image (extract, full illustration in the article): Graphic shows the basic design of a serial femtosecond crystallography experiment at European XFEL. X-ray bursts strike crystallized samples resulting in diffraction patterns that can be reassembled into detailed images.
Credit: Shireen Dooling for the Biodesign Institute at ASU

Breaking up buckyballs is hard to do

A new study shows how soccer ball-shaped molecules burst more slowly than expected when blasted with an X-ray laser beam.

As reported in Nature Physics, an international research team observed how soccer ball-shaped molecules made of carbon atoms burst in the beam of an X-ray laser. The molecules, called buckminsterfullerenes – buckyballs for short ­– consist of 60 carbon atoms arranged in alternating pentagons and hexagons like the leather coat of a soccer ball. These molecules were expected to break into fragments after being bombarded with photons, but the researchers watched in real time as buckyballs resisted the attack and delayed their break-up.

The team was led by Nora Berrah, a professor at the University of Connecticut, and included researchers from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Germany. The researchers focused their attention on examining the role of chemical effects, such as chemical bonds and charge transfer, on the buckyball’s fragmentation.

Using X-ray laser pulses from SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), the team showed how the bursting process, which takes only a few hundred femtoseconds, or millionths of a billionth of a second, unfolds over time. The results will be important for the analysis of sensitive proteins and other biomolecules, which are also frequently studied using bright X-ray laser flashes, and they also strengthen confidence in protein analysis with X-ray free-electron lasers (XFELs).

>Read more on the Linear Coherent Light Source at SLAC website

Image: An illustration shows how soccer ball-shaped molecules called buckyballs ionize and break up when blasted with an X-ray laser. A team of experimentalists and theorists identified chemical bonds and charge transfers as crucial factors that significantly delayed the fragmentation process by about 600 millionths of a billionth of a second.
Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

For additional information: article published on the DESY website

Two years of user operation in numbers

1200 users, 60 experiments and 6 petabytes of data since operation began.

September 1 marks two years since the official opening and start of user operation at European XFEL. With the scheduled expansion from two to six operational instruments, the facility has expanded its experimental capacity and possibilities significantly during the past two years. At the same time, both the performance of the X-ray free-electron laser and instruments was continually improved. The scientific community shows strong interest in experiments at the new facility, with a total of 363 submitted proposals during this period, of which 98 were awarded beamtime. In total, 1200 users from across the world came to Schenefeld for their research. As the facility continues to be developed, even more time will be available for user experiments in the future.

>Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: Laser installation on the European XFEL campus in 2017 highlighting the five underground tunnels.
Credit: The European XFEL (Germany)

Research and tinkering – SwissFEL in 2019

The newest large research facility at the Paul Scherrer Institute, SwissFEL, has been completed. Regular operation began in January 2019.

Henrik Lemke, head of the SwissFEL Bernina research group in the Photon Science Division, gives a first interm report.

Mr. Lemke, you have just published a technical article in which you report on the experience so far with SwissFEL. How would you sum it up?

With SwissFEL, we are entering new territory at PSI. It is one of only five comparable facilities on this scale worldwide. This means we still need to gain experience, because we are doing a lot of things for the first time. On January 1 this year we began regular operation. Research groups from other institutions have already been here, and they have successfully conducted experiments with us, just like PSI researchers themselves. These were already a big success. In parallel to this operation, we are also further optimising the facility and the experimental setup. This will enable us to join ranks with the comparable facilities and, in addition, develop particular methods into specialities of SwissFEL.

>Read more on the SwissFEL website

Image: Lemke at the experiment station Bernina of SwissFEL
Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute/Mahir Dzambegovic