The biggest X-ray laser on the planet is now open

The largest X-ray laser on the planet has opened today; ready to start shining a billion times brighter than conventional X-ray sources. The giant microscope will be used to study some of Earth’s tiniest structures, including atoms and viruses.

The biggest X-ray laser on the planet is now open

Called the European X-ray Free Electron Laser (EXFEL), this mammoth piece of kit has been set up in Schenefeld, near Hamburg, in northern Germany. It lives in a 2.1-mile (3.4km) long tunnel, up to 125 feet (38m) underground, and will produce 27,000 flashes of laser light per second.

 A livestream of the opening of the experiment started today at 15:00 BST (15:00 CET).

The lasers will be shone onto metal, sending bundles of electrons flying down the linear accelerator, which takes up 1.05 miles (1.7km) of the tunnel. The superconducting tube is cooled to minus 271 degrees C, and, with the help of microwaves, electrons in the tunnel almost reach the speed of light.

Towards the end of the tube, magnets will send the electrons through a series of turns. When these electrons change direction, they give off light in the X-ray part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

These X-rays will be used to study anything at the nano-level, 100,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.


The machine is “like a camera and a microscope that will make it possible to see more tiny details and processes in the nano-world than ever before,” said Robert Feidenhans’l, chairman of the project’s management board.

The light beams can also be combined to generate extreme pressure and temperatures, to study process like those at the centre of the Earth. 

The project is the result of £1.38bn (€1.5bn/$1.7bn) of funding and eight years of building work.

Its installation has been celebrated by a laser show extending from the Elbphilharmonie, the Philosopher’s Tower at the University of Hamburg. The show has been using five lasers to shine every evening from 29 August and will continue until the 3 September. 

“Hamburg shines today, and in the next few days, particularly brightly for science—we are extremely proud that the European XFEL has found its home in the metropolitan area of Hamburg,” said Katharina Fegebank, senator for Science, Research, and Equality.

“For a few days, the light installation draws attention to what most people can’t see under the ground: an Elbphilharmonie of Science that can, in concert with other research facilities in the metropolitan region, set new international standards,” said Feidenhans’l.

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