Ultra-fast X-ray camera to probe structure of matter

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An innovative X-ray camera that can record bursts of images at an unprecedented speed of 4.5 million frames per second is under development as part of a new research facility that will look to shed light on the structure of matter.

Being built by the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the unique device will be delivered to the €1bn European XFEL (X-ray Free-Electron Laser) facility (near Hamburg, German) next year, and will contribute to drug discovery and other vital research once operations begin in 2015.

The European XFEL is a two-mile-long facility that will use superconducting accelerator technology to accelerate electrons, which then generate X-ray flashes a billion times brighter than those produced by conventional X-ray sources. Each flash will last less than one hundred million billionth of a second. With the properties of laser light, these short, intense flashes will, for example, make it possible to take three-dimensional X-ray images of single molecules.

Current leading-edge X-ray cameras are designed to capture images when matter is bombarded by a constant beam of X-rays. But the extreme brevity and intensity of the flashes produced by the European XFEL means such cameras will not be suitable for use at the new facility.

STFC's £3m prototype, which is being built in collaboration with University of Glasgow, is specifically designed to work in conjunction with hyper-short, hyper-brilliant X-ray flashes. It will be installed in one of the first experimental end stations incorporated in the European XFEL.

The European XFEL aims to improve understanding of matter and its behaviour, mapping the atomic details of viruses, for instance, or pinpointing the molecular composition of individual cells.

Dr Markus Kuster, group leader of European XFEL's detector development, commented: 'The European XFEL will represent a major step forward in equipping Europe with a new generation of research infrastructure that can meet the requirements of the 21st century. STFC's unique skills are creating an imaging device which will help this remarkable facility realise its vast potential.'

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