Research quality X-rays could have widespread applications
Using a compact but powerful laser, a research team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has developed a new way to generate synchrotron X-rays.
Although the high quality of synchrotron X-rays make them ideal for research ranging from the structure of matter to advanced medical images, access to the technology has been limited until now. Most traditional synchrotron X-ray devices are gigantic and costly, available only at a few sites around the world.
As reported in this week’s issue of the top-ranked optics journal Nature Photonics, researchers at UNL’s Extreme Light Laboratory developed a novel method to generate research-quality X-rays using a “tabletop” laser.
“Our hope is that this new technology will lead to applications that benefit both science and society,” said Nathan Powers, a Ph.D. student and first author of the journal article.
Physics professor Donald Umstadter, director of the Extreme Light Laboratory, led the research project. He compared the synchrotron X-ray breakthrough to the development of personal computers, giving more people access to computing power once available only via large and costly mainframe computers. Shrinking components of advanced laser-based technology will increase the feasibility of producing high-quality X-rays in medical and university research laboratories, which in turn could lead to new applications for the X-rays.
Because the new X-ray device could be small enough to fit in a hospital or on a truck, it could lead to more widespread applications for advanced X-ray technology, UNL scientists said. New applications might include Homeland Security detecting nuclear materials concealed within a shielded container; doctors finding cancerous tumors at earlier stages; or scientists studying extremely fast reactions that occur too rapidly for observation with conventional X-rays.
Ever since synchrotron X-ray light sources were developed more than 60 years ago, they have grown in size. Some now equal the size of a college campus, with a cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars. These huge machines continue to be built, most recently in Australia and Brazil.
Like supercomputers, they provide scientists with the most advanced research capabilities, yet they are not feasible for most practical applications. Though synchrotron X-rays result in lower doses of radiation as well as high-quality images, the tens of thousands of compact X-ray devices currently in operation in hospitals or at ports worldwide produce lower quality X-rays.