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Stanford Linear Accelerator gets massive power boost with Department of Energy upgrade

Upgraded Stanford Linear Accelerator requires coldest temperatures in universe to function
Upgraded Stanford Linear Accelerator requires coldest temperatures in universe to function 03:34

MENLO PARK -- Thousands of commuters on I-280 drive over literally the coolest spot in the universe every day where the upgraded Stanford Linear Accelerator requires those freezing temperatures to operate.

Professor Mike Dunne has a gleam in his eye about as bright as the new LCLS-II (Linac Coherent Light Source) on the Stanford campus.

"This is where we take the x-rays and use them for a whole range of different scientific purposes," he said as he headed into the Near Experimental Hall, where the brightest x-rays on Earth end their brief life in detectors of various shapes and sizes.

It's all part of a ten-year, $1.2 billion Department of Energy upgrade to the 60-year-old accelerator aimed at understanding matter and energy at the electronic, atomic and molecular level. The new configuration generates x-ray pulses a billion times brighter than anything that had come before. On Monday, it went live for the first time.

"We can use these x-rays like a strobe light. You know, when you're in a disco, a strobe light captures your dancing, captures your beautiful movements. Our x-rays capture the movement of atoms and molecules as they go about their business," explained Professor Dunne. "And so we can build up this this freeze-frame movie of how the world around us works at that atomic and molecular scale. An unbelievable leap in capability. How do we go from where we are today with a hundred frames per second, how do we go from there to a million frames per second? A little bit of Menlo Park has to get super cold."

And so it does, in cryo modules 35 feet underground, where electrons spin up to nearly the speed of light, only to have x-rays throttled out of them toward the end of their nearly two-mile run in the largest building on Earth.

To do that, superconduction must be achieved, with electrons encountering zero resistance (everything runs so much cooler that way). Greg Hays's job is overseeing the lab's two helium cryoplants, which he whimsically describes as a massive Westinghouse refrigerator.

"The LCLS-II cryo plant cools the accelerator down to colder than space, two degrees kelvin, or 456 degrees Fahrenheit below zero," Hays said. "It runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have to deliver science to users for 5,000 hours a year. So people have to come in and use this machine at all hours of the day. And it takes about a thousand people and staff to run the facility at all times."

It's an exciting time, because the far faster -- meaning, more frequently strobing -- far brighter x-rays will allow scientists to examine chemical reactions down to the molecular level.

"The x-rays arrive in a snapshot of a second; a millionth of a billionth of a second. An unbelievably short timeframe," said Professor Dunne. "And why does that matter? It's important because that's the timescale on which chemical bonds are made or broken. The timescale on which disease invades a cell in your body, the timescale on which quantum phenomena appear around us."

The LCLS-II opens up avenues to research in all manner of pressing questions: "Can we make faster computers and communication? Can we make a next generation of pharmaceuticals that will tackle the diseases that are crippling us today?"

The Stanford scientists are hoping so. Now at the outset of a new generation of research, scientists worldwide will be crowding the field with requests to use the machine. And it won't cost them a dime, as long as they have ideas worthy of research on the accelerator and will publish their findings in a scientific journal.

"We don't have a monopoly on great ideas. And so we open this facility up to anybody who wants to use it anywhere across the country, anywhere around the world. You just have to have the best idea," said Dr. Dunne. "This is an amazing time to be around 10 years worth of design, installation, tuning, commissioning: it is happening right now. Over a billion dollars worth of investment is turning on as we speak. It's a great time to be here." 

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