The world's largest x-ray laser gets switched on today

(Image credit: European XFEL)

Today, in a tunnel underneath the German city of Hamburg, researchers will inaugurate the European XFEL X-ray Free Electron laser, the largest laser of its kind in the world.

The device, which stretches 3.4 kilometres along a tunnel below the city of Hamburg, is designed to generate enormously bright laser flashes at a rate of 27,000 per second. This powerful strobe will let us look deep inside matter.

The machine is "like a camera and a microscope that will make it possible to see more tiny details and processes in the nano-world than ever before," Robert Feidenhans'l, chairman of the project's management board, told AFP. 

Ultrathin Discs

The opening comes at the culmination of an eight-year construction process, funded by 11 countries. It'll let teams from around the world take three-dimensional photos of the insides of cells, as well as mapping the structure of viruses.

To do that, it'll bounce light along a series of silicon mirrors so smooth that the bumps on its surface measure no more than a millionth of a millimetre in size. The laser slams into metal, sending bundles of electrons flying along a tube cooled to minus 271C, where they're accelerated by microwaves to almost the speed of light. 

After being gathered into ultrathin discs, the electrons eventually hit a material, giving a series of crisp pictures with a shutter speed of a billionth of a second.

Partners in the project, which was headed up by the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron, include Germany, Russia, Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.