First microscopic movies of liquids getting vaporized by SLAC’s X-ray free-electron laser LCLS.
Explore our frontier research

X-ray & ultrafast science

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.

Powerful X-rays reveal molecular structures at the site where drug compounds interact with cell receptors.


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.

Bioimaging news

In the decade since LCLS produced its first light, it has pushed boundaries in countless areas of discovery.

Undulator Hall

The giant cavity, in a protein that transports nutrients across the cell membrane, is unlike anything researchers have seen before.

A scientist working overlaid on a world map and images of tuberculosis bacteria.
Researchers used SLAC's LCLS X-ray laser to stimulate and measure the electron-transfer process inside a severed methyl iodide molecule.

Fundamental science

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.

Chemistry and catalysis

Scientists for the first time tracked ultrafast structural changes, captured in quadrillionths-of-a-second steps, as ring-shaped gas molecules burst open and unraveled.

Image - This illustration shows shape changes that occur in quadrillionths-of-a-second intervals in a ring-shaped molecule that was broken open by light. (SLAC)

Using an X-ray laser, researchers watched atoms rotate on the surface of a material that was demagnetized in millionths of a billionth of a second.

Iron sample blasted with laser pulses to demagnetize it, then X-rayed.
Researchers study how a small protein modifier produced in cells called Ubiquitin participates in cellular activities.

Life’s secrets

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.

Bioimaging news

Scientists used SLAC's LCLS X-ray laser to make the first snapshots of a chemical interaction between two biomolecules. It changes the shape of millions of molecular switches almost instantaneously, like synchronized swimmers performing the same move.

Illustration depicting a chemical interaction as synchronized swimmers.

Molecular movie-making is both an art and a science; the results let us watch how nature works on the smallest scales.

Molecular movie frames for the light-triggered transition of the ring-shaped 1,3-CHD molecule.
How electrons flow in the oxygen-evolving complex of Photosystem II.

Clean energy

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. 

Energy science news

In a major step forward, SLAC’s X-ray laser captures all four stable states of the process that produces the oxygen we breathe, as well as fleeting steps in between. The work opens doors to understanding the past and creating a...

Atomic movie

A new study is a step forward in understanding why perovskite materials work so well in energy devices and potentially leads the way toward a theorized “hot” technology that would significantly improve the efficiency of today’s solar cells.

Scattered neutrons off perovskite material.
Researchers use X-rays to study some of the most extreme and exotic forms of matter ever created, in detail never before possible.

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.

MEC news

SLAC’s X-ray laser and Matter in Extreme Conditions instrument allow researchers to examine the exotic precipitation in real time as it materializes in the laboratory.

A cutaway depicts the interior of Neptune (right) and an illustration of diamond rain (left).

Learning how liquid silicates behave at these extreme temperatures and pressures has been a longstanding challenge in the geosciences.

atomic arrangements of liquid silicates at the extreme conditions found in the core-mantle boundary.
UED electron camera takes snapshots of dynamic ripples.

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.

Materials science news

The latest advance from a research collaboration with industry could dramatically accelerate the development of sturdier batteries for fast-charging electric vehicles.

Studies of electrode nanoparticles for batteries.

The advance opens a path toward a new generation of logic and memory devices that could be 10,000 times faster than today’s.

Fanciful illustration based on electron orbitals