Ulla Vainio

Physicist, Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht


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What could one do with an x-ray laser?

At first it might appear like a crazy scientist dream. An x-ray laser? Really? But it is already reality! Several x-ray free electron lasers (XFEL) are currently being built all over the world. One such big machine is already operational, the LCLS in California. These machines are typically one or two kilometers long and cost about 1 billion dollars. They make pulsed laser like radiation in femtosecond time scale in the x-ray wavelength regime. At the moment physicists, chemist and biologists are together trying to use the radiation for example to study structures of bioorganisms. There are still a lot of technical difficulties to be solved. The billion dollar question is, what else could one do with this radiation? Can you think of ways to use this radiation to study something new?

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    Feb 16 2011: That cannot be the cost of operating it.
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      Feb 16 2011: You are right. I just threw the number out my hat based on my gut feeling and was hoping to come back and correct it today before anybody reads it once I realized that it was overestimated quite a bit.. More reasonable estimate is actually around 300 000 dollars per day. Per hour that would be then around 12 000 dollars. But, actually, since the machine is not operated every day (like Christmas), the costs per day are higher. Anyway, my gut feeling was off by a factor of ten. But if you then add to this the actual technical equipment needed for the experiment and also the personnel who do the experiment, I believe for most experiments the costs are higher.

      The estimate here is based on the yearly operation cost estimate of European XFEL.

      For comparison, at a synchrotron one pays 300 - 3000 euros per hour for measurement time, depending on the synchrotron.
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    Feb 15 2011: I forgot to mention that one hour on such a machine costs maybe around 100 000 dollars or so. This is good to keep in mind when thinking about non-scientific or commercial applications.
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    Feb 15 2011: Cut silicon for custom chip circuits.