The Only Thing Cooler Than a Laser Is an X-Ray Laser

By Jamie Condliffe on at

Lasers are cool, but X-ray lasers are so much cooler. Until now, the only X-ray lasers to ever exist have required so much power that their infrastructure took up the same amount of space as football stadiums — but a team of scientists have just made one that fits in your living room.

Researchers from the University of Colorado in Boulder have developed a table-top X-ray laser device, which is set to shake up the way lasers are used for measuring incredibly small objects. Margaret Murnane, one of the researchers, explained to the BBC:

"Because X-ray wavelengths are 1,000 times shorter than visible light and they penetrate materials, these coherent X-ray beams promise revolutionary new capabilities."

In a normal laser beam photons oscillate neatly together, a property which is known as coherence and is a defining feature of lasers in general. To achieve the same effect with X-rays isn't easy.

What the researchers had to do, they explain in Science, was fire short, infrared pulses into clouds of noble gas. As the pulses propagated, they ripped electrons from the atoms they passed, causing them to accelerate before returning to their atoms. The result? Lots of energy, dumped in the form of streams of coherent beams of electromagnetic waves, including X-rays.

But why should anyone care? Well, because the wavelength of the X-ray part of the emitted waves is so much shorter than that of laser light, the beams can be used to image extremely small objects.

Previously, it's only been possible to do that using gigantic particle accelerators — and now, it can be found on the bench tops of a laboratory. That's real progress. [Science via BBCThanks, Jonathan!]

Image credit: The Webhamster from flickr