Scientists created a ‘black hole’ using this ultra-powerful laser – ANITH
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Scientists created a ‘black hole’ using this ultra-powerful laser

Scientists created a ‘black hole’ using this ultra-powerful laser

An illustration of an ultra-intense X-ray laser pulse knocking electrons out of a molecule’s iodine atom.

Image: DESY/Science Communication Lab

U.S. scientists have created their own “black hole” using the world’s most powerful X-ray laser.

Researchers in the past had used a lower-intensity beam on small molecules, which in turn stripped away electrons from the molecules’ iodine atoms. But in a recent experiment, a team used a high-intensity beam instead — and the results came as a big surprise.

A single laser pulse stripped all but a few electrons in the molecule’s biggest atom from the inside out. That created a void, which pulled in electrons from the rest of the molecule — akin to a black hole in space that devours neighboring stars, though on a teeny-tiny scale, according to a paper published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

“We certainly weren’t expecting this from previous measurements,” said Sebastien Boutet, a co-author of the study and a scientist at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, which houses the free-electron, X-ray laser.

The Coherent X-ray Imaging instrument at SLAC lab's Linac Coherent Light Source office in California.

The Coherent X-ray Imaging instrument at SLAC lab’s Linac Coherent Light Source office in California.

Image: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The microscopic black hole didn’t live for long, however. Within 30 femtoseconds — millionths of a billionth of a second — the molecule lost more than 50 electrons, and then exploded. With laser temperatures in the thousands of degrees, the molecule never stood a chance as it was.

Daniel Rolles and Artem Rudenko of Kansas State University led the experiment, which took place at the SLAC lab’s Linac Coherent Light Source office in Menlo Park, California.

U.S. and international scientists alike have used the powerful laser to attempt to image individual biological objects, such as viruses and bacteria, at high resolution. They’re also conducting experiments to see how matter behaves under extreme conditions and to better understand the charge dynamics of complex molecules.

A sketch of the experimental laser set-up.

A sketch of the experimental laser set-up.

Image: A. rudenko et al., nature

But researchers are still learning how the instrument works and how to decipher the measurements it collects.

With the laser, they can gather data from molecular samples in less than the blink of an eye, but the samples are inevitably damaged and destroyed. It’s not always clear if scientists’ measurements are from the unsullied sample or reflect some of the laser’s damage, Boutet said by phone.

Rolles said the high-intensity laser experiment could help scientists better plan and interpret future work using the X-ray pulse.

“For any type of experiment you do that focuses intense X-rays on a sample, you want to understand how it reacts to the X-rays,” he said in a press release. “This paper shows that we can understand and model the radiation damage in small molecules, so now we can predict what damage we will get in other systems.”

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Anith Gopal
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