The European X-ray Laser Project (XFEL) will harness a high energy short-wave laser light that is one billion times more brilliant than most modern x-rays to provide immensely detailed images of molecules and atoms.
Scientists believe a greater understanding of atoms and molecules could be used to develop better drugs to treat diseases or more environmentally efficient technologies for cleansing chemical effluents including carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Scientists will be able to carry out a range of experiments that were previously impossible before. For instance, researchers will be able to film atoms as they undergo chemical reactions, or see molecules that were once too small for conventional technology, and analyze gas plasma, the stuff of which stars are made, in microscopic detail.
To see these images, electrons are shot down a 3.3 km long tube at very high speeds and are stimulated to emit x-ray light. These can analyze molecules and atoms in unprecedented detail because the x-ray light emitted is at extremely short wavelengths, between six and one tenth of a nanometer, which enables very high resolution images to be taken of microscopic surfaces.
Countries participating in the XFEL project include Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, China and the UK.