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Shanghai scientists make breakthrough in X-ray research
date: 2021-06-30

The Shanghai-XFEL Beamline Project (SBP) and Shanghai Soft X-ray Free Electron Laser Facility (SXEFL), a core part in the global photon science research center in Zhangjiang, Pudong New Area, achieved another milestone in its progress recently. 

On June 14, the first single-shot coherent diffraction imaging (CDI) experiment was performed in a "water window" and online image reconstruction was achieved.

Scientists said that this achievement means that X-ray FEL research in China has advanced from the facility research and development phase to user operation phase. The "water window" refers to a soft X-ray with a wavelength that has a range between 2.3 and 4.4 nanometers. Water is relatively transparent to X-rays but other essential life elements, such as carbon, still interact strongly with X-rays. As such, the "water window" soft X-rays provide a unique opportunity for investigating biological materials, added the researchers.

Within the "water window", SXFEL can generate high-intensity free electron laser pulses, which are 1 billion times brighter than those of synchrotron radiation light sources. Such ultrabright, ultrafast and coherent pulses enable scientists to take X-ray snapshots of atoms and molecules at work, revealing fundamental processes in materials, technology and living organisms.

Researchers said that the research result this time will be applied in microscopic imaging of living cells, and may provide a revolutionary research tool for multiple disciplines, including physics, biology and chemistry.

"The pulses from the X-ray FEL facility can detect super tiny structures and help researchers obtain dynamic structural images of atoms and molecules. It makes filming movies of molecules come true," said Liu Zhi, a professor from the ShanghaiTech University and general manager of the SXEFL.

"If we compare a cell to a city, the technology will allow people to depict a three-dimensional traffic map of the city. That means scientists will see how proteins come and go in a cell using a combination of CDI and other imaging methods. This may provide new insights into important research areas, such as finding drug targets," he added.

The SXFEL facility is scheduled to begin user operation next year and will be open to both users at home and abroad.