May 16, 2021

Clocking Electron Movements Inside an Atom – Shutter Speed of a Millionth of a Billionth of a Second

Posted by in categories: biological, chemistry, particle physics

Scientists dramatically enhance the achievable resolution at free-electron lasers with a new technique.

Hard X-ray free-electron lasers (XFELs) have delivered intense, ultrashort X-ray pulses for over a decade. One of the most promising applications of XFELs is in biology, where researchers can capture images down to the atomic scale even before the radiation damage destroys the sample. In physics and chemistry, these X-rays can also shed light on the fastest processes occurring in nature with a shutter speed lasting only one femtosecond – equivalent to a millionth of a billionth of a second.

However, on these minuscule timescales, it is extremely difficult to synchronize the X-ray pulse that sparks a reaction in the sample on the one hand and the laser pulse which ‘observes’ it on the other. This problem is called timing jitter, and it is a major hurdle in ongoing efforts to perform time-resolved experiments at XFELs with ever-shorter resolution.

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