Researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Michigan and Instituto Superior Téchnico Lisbon have created a tabletop device that produces synchrotron X-rays, the energy and image quality of which are as good as some of the largest, most expensive X-ray facilities on the planet. It uses a high power laser combined with a tiny jet of helium gas to produce an ultrashort high energy beam, that could be used for everything from examining molecules to checking the integrity of airplane wings.
The new device’s X-rays have an extremely short pulse length, and originate from a point only about one micron in width. This results in an unusually narrow beam, which allows users to see finer details than other technologies permit. Because the pulses are so short, users could even measure atomic and molecular interactions that occur on a femtosecond (one quadrillionth of a second) timescale.
The team started with an experiment at the University of Michigan, in which they shone a very high power laser beam into a jet of helium gas. This created a tiny column of ionised helium plasma. Within that column, the laser pulse created a bubble of positively charged helium ions surrounded by a sheath of negatively charged electrons. Because of the separation of positive and negative charges, the bubble contained powerful electrical fields that accelerated some of the plasma’s electrons to form an energetic beam, while also causing that beam to wiggle. That wiggling produced a “highly collimated co-propagating X-ray beam,” which is at the heart of the device.
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