Lasers fire beams of light that can cut through steel or etch microchip patterns, depending on the power and wavelength. Now one team of scientists at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., led by Nina Rohringer, has created an X-ray laser that fires more energy, with a more precise wavelength, than any previous model. The results are being published in the journal Nature.
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X-ray lasers are already used in spectroscopy, as a way to look into the depths of molecules like DNA. Back in the 1980s the "Star Wars" missile defense program even floated the idea of X-ray lasers as weapons, powered by nuclear bombs. (The idea was never implemented.) This laser will let scientists see things smaller than ever before.
A laser works by exciting atoms in a crystal, gas or liquid, pushing the electrons nearest to the nucleus into higher energy levels - a process called "pumping." When the electrons return to their ground states, neighboring atoms stimulate each other and they emit light of a specific wavelength - ultimately the laser.
Most lasers, like the ones in CD players and laser pointers, use visible light or electricity to excite the atoms.
But getting a laser beam to work in the X-ray part of the spectrum requires tons of energy. Scientists use particle accelerators to push electrons to near the speed of light and then send them through a set of magnets. The electrons emit laser light in the X-ray spectrum.