The largest X-ray laser in the world, the European XFEL, produced the first ultra-short light flashes on 4 May 2017. This was the last major milestone before its official start-up operations in September. It marks the beginning of a new era of research in Europe – since the machine’s efficiency opens up completely new possibilities.

Challenge: Answers to global questions

Nanotechnology is one of the key technologies of the 21st century. But the “smallest detail” has not yet been fully explored. In the nanoscale, substances develop new properties, which in turn allow for new applications. But which ones? Fossil fuels are finite, and renewable energy is not yet sufficient to meet global energy needs. Can artificial photosynthesis play a part in energy production on Earth in the future? Can drugs be developed that cure diseases such as AIDS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s without serious side effects?

Solution: High-tech and worldwide cooperation

Researchers from around the world are trying to find answers to these and many other questions with the help of the European XFEL (X-Ray Free Electron Laser). The 3.4 kilometre long and approximately 1.5 billion euro machine, which mainly goes through underground tunnels from the site of the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg-Bahrenfeld to the experimental hall in Schenefeld, Schleswig-Holstein, in the future will generate an X-ray light with a wavelength of just 0.05 nanometres – about 10,000 times shorter than visible light.

Novel, three-dimensional insights into the nano-world have become possible and form the basis for the technical applications of the future. Even the three-dimensional structures of biomolecules, cell components and whole viruses can be deciphered with the X-ray flashes. Scientists can also examine very small sample sizes and carry out experiments more quickly. They also save valuable “beam time” among other things.

The research organisation European XFEL GmbH cooperates closely with the DESY research centre in Hamburg. Above all, the XFEL is an extraordinary example for successful global cooperation. Components for the X-ray laser were produced, assembled and tested by research facilities, institutes and universities and companies in the industry from all over the world. The largest and most efficient of five X-ray lasers in the world (so far) was created in the metropolitan region of Hamburg in cooperation with 17 research facilities from eleven countries – Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Spain and Hungary.

Potential: Hamburg – World Capital of X-ray Research

When the X-ray laser starts its official operations at the start of September, international research groups will carry out initial experiments there. The Schenefeld research campus already employs more than 300 workers from 36 countries. This is only the beginning. This makes Hamburg the world-capital of X-ray light research and an outstanding European location for research and innovation.

As of September 2019

European XFEL
in Numbers

1,22 B.
Countries involved
Total length
27 000
X-ray flashes per Second
Tunnel depth
Construction time
117,8 M.
Euro Annual Budget 2015

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