With their ability to penetrate matter and resolve individual atoms, X-rays and electrons are among scientists’ most useful tools for determining the structure and behavior of molecules and materials. This information is valuable for many applications, from developing effective drugs with fewer side effects to devising new materials for electronics and clean energy technologies.
SLAC’s unique facilities for X-ray and ultrafast science – the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) and megaelectronvolt ultrafast electron diffraction (MeV-UED) – attract thousands of researchers from universities, industries and laboratories around the world each year.
To accelerate the design of more effective medications with fewer side effects, researchers can use X-rays and ultrafast science to map how drugs dock with their protein targets in the cell with atomic resolution.
X-ray and ultrafast experiments are improving our understanding of the earliest steps in chemical reactions, including catalytic reactions that are critical in producing fuels and other industrial chemicals. This improved understanding of ultrafast chemistry at the scale of atoms and molecules could lead to more efficient and controllable chemical reactions.
Every human is powered by a vast array of proteins and other biological machines that guide everything from how we see to how the body responds to viruses. To gain a deeper understanding, scientists can use X-rays and electrons to study how these structures change over time, often as a result of external stimuli such as a change in environment.
X-ray and ultrafast experiments give scientists insight into photosynthesis, which could provide a blueprint for developing clean sources of renewable energy. They have also aided in the development of new semiconductor materials that may significantly improve the efficiency and cost of organic solar cells used to turn the sun’s rays into usable energy.
Matter in extreme conditions (MEC)
One of the most basic ways of understanding a material is learning how it changes among its solid, liquid, gas and plasma phases. These changes take place at specific temperatures and pressures. But under extreme conditions – like those in the hearts of planets or in exploding stars – materials can enter other exotic phases with unique characteristics. At SLAC, researchers use X-rays to study some of the most extreme and exotic forms of matter ever created, in detail never before possible.
Future materials and technology
Scientists around the world are racing to develop cheaper, sturdier, more efficient rechargeable batteries for electric cars, cell phones, laptops and other devices. With X-rays and ultrafast science, they can test new battery materials and components and see how they operate, at the scale of atoms and molecules, in real time. They can also explore new ways to design and control the magnetic and electronic properties of electronic materials with ultrashort pulses of light. This helps drive the development of extremely fast, low-energy computer memory chips and data-switching devices.