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European XFEL welcomes UK as member state

21 Mar 2018 Hamish Johnston
Photograph of the XFEL ceremony
X-ray vision: the British Ambassador to Germany signs documents for the UK to join the European XFEL

, which is an X-ray free electron laser located in Hamburg, Germany. Although British scientists have already been involved in constructing and operating the multidisciplinary research facility, the UK will now have a greater say in its future.

The UK will contribute €26m towards the cost of building of the facility, which was completed last year. This is about 2% of the total construction cost of €1.22bn (all figures in 2005 equivalent prices). The UK is the twelfth country to join the European XFEL and will also pay for 2% of the future operating costs of the facility.

The European XFEL is a 3.4 km-long underground facility that produces X-rays by accelerating pulses of electrons in a 2.1 km superconducting linear accelerator to 17.5 GeV. The pulses are sent through undulators, where the electrons are accelerated back and forth causing the emission of intense laser-like pulses of coherent X-rays.

Chemical movies

The X-rays are then sent to experimental stations, where they can be used for a wide range of studies in physics, biology, chemistry and materials science.  The facility generates 30,000 X-ray pulses per second, with each pulse lasting less than 100 fs. This ultrafast capability allows researchers to create “movies” of processes such as chemical bonding and vibrational energy flow across materials.

The UK has been involved with the European XFEL since 2008 through technology collaborations and user consortia. The X-ray camera used in the facility’s Femtosecond X-ray Experiments (FXE) experimental station was designed and built by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

The UK’s Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire hosts an “XFEL hub” where UK users of the European XFEL are given support in terms of training, sample preparation and data processing. There are also plans to create a dedicated fibre link between Diamond and European XFEL so that users can analyse data in the UK.

Giant planets

The Central Laser Facility of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in Oxfordshire is currently building a nanosecond high-energy laser for the High Energy Density (HED) experimental station at European XFEL. Dubbed DiPOLE, the laser will be used to compress matter to extreme pressure to recreate conditions found within giant planets such as Jupiter. X-rays from XFEL will then be used to study this compressed matter.

“The UK science community has been very active in the project since the very beginning, and their contribution of ideas and know-how has been always highly appreciated,” said Martin Meedom Nielsen who is chair of the European XFEL. Speaking at a ceremony earlier this week at the British Embassy in Berlin to welcome the UK, he added “Together, we will maintain and develop the European XFEL as a world leading facility for X-ray science”.

Also at the ceremony was STFC chief executive Brian Bowsher, who said “As the UK becomes a full member of XFEL it opens up areas of research for British scientists at the atomic, molecular and nanoscale level that are currently inaccessible”.

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