Cover art for Direct Current podcast episode "LCLS-II: Brighter, Faster, Smaller"

From LCLS...

Stretching nearly two miles under a freeway in Palo Alto, CA, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) is a massive X-ray laser with the power to create slow-motion "movies" of molecules in motion. SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory uses the LCLS to take X-ray snapshots of atoms and molecules at work, providing atomic resolution detail on ultrafast timescales to reveal fundamental processes in materials, technology and living things.

Aerial shot of SLAC Lab

With over 13,000 scientific user visits in its first 10 years of operation, researchers from around the world have conducted groundbreaking experiments in fields as diverse as chemical catalysis, human health, quantum materials science, and the physics of planetary formation. LCLS currently delivers 120 X-ray pulses per second, each one lasting just quadrillionths of a second, or "femtoseconds"—a timescale at which the motion of atoms can be seen and tracked.

Aerial view of the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory LCLS-II

A decade-long project to boost the performance of the LCLS is underway at SLAC. Referred to as "LCLS-II," the upgrade will provide a major jump in capability – moving from 120 pulses per second to 1 million pulses per second. The unique capabilities of LCLS-II will yield a host of discoveries to advance technology, new energy solutions and our quality of life.

Video Url
This movie introduces LCLS-II, a future light source at SLAC. It will generate over 8,000 times more light pulses per second than today’s most powerful X-ray laser, LCLS, and produce an almost continuous X-ray beam that on average will be 10,000 times brighter. These unrivaled capabilities will help researchers address a number of grand challenges in science by capturing detailed snapshots of rapid processes that are beyond the reach of other light sources.
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

LCLS-II will add a superconducting accelerator, occupying one-third of SLAC’s original 2-mile-long linear accelerator tunnel, which will generate an almost continuous X-ray laser beam. In addition to the new accelerator, LCLS-II requires a number of other cutting-edge components, including a new electron source, a powerful cooling plant that produces refrigerant for the accelerator, and two new undulators to generate X-rays.

Aerial map of SLAC LCLS-II
U.S. Department of Energy


MATT DOZIER: About 30 miles south of San Francisco, in the heart of Silicon Valley, a long, low, beige-colored building runs under the busy artery of Highway 280. From underneath the overpass, it stretches off into the distance in either direction, about as far as the eye can see. 

DOZIER: The building is… buzzing. 


DOZIER: That’s because it’s no ordinary building. It’s a laser – well, part of a laser. The massive, two-mile-long facility is known as the L-C-L-S, short for “Linac Coherent Light Source”… but you don’t need to remember that. All you need to know is that it can generate one of the brightest and fastest x-ray lasers in the world. 


DOZIER: There, on the campus of the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, scientists are probing some of the most extreme research scenarios in science — from peering inside the core of planets to creating incredible slow-motion movies of the coronavirus binding to the proteins of our cells. And with a decade-long upgrade underway, the LCLS is getting even more powerful — we’re talking thousands of times faster and brighter — making the research possibilities essentially limitless.  

DOZIER: This is Direct Current — An Podcast. I’m your host, Matt Dozier. Coming up, we’ll dive into the world of ultra-fast, ultra-small science — a world where diamonds fall like rain, molecules move like ballet dancers, and the line between physics and chemistry starts to blur. Stay tuned. 




DOZIER: SLAC (that’s spelled S-L-A-C, all caps) is one of the Energy Department’s 17 National Laboratories. Nestled alongside Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, the Lab and university have a close shared history. SLAC originally stood for “Stanford Linear Accelerator Center” before the Lab’s official name was changed to SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in 2008. Today, Stanford operates SLAC on behalf of the Department’s Office of Science. It’s a “user facility”, with a long wait list for the scientists flocking from around the world to Palo Alto to take a turn at focusing the LCLS’ intense x-ray beams on their samples — everything from rare crystalline structures to the enzymes in the leaves of plants. To understand what the LCLS can do, first we need to know a little more about what an x-ray laser *is.* There’s two things going on here, both of which should be pretty familiar: x-rays, like the one your doctor uses when you break a bone, and lasers, which… we all know what lasers are, right? Intense beams of super-focused light. 

DOZIER: Lasers come in all shapes and sizes. You’ve got your laser pointer that drives the cat crazy. (CAT MEOW SFX) You’ve got your laser used for eye surgery. (LASER PEW SFX) You’ve got your James Bond conveyor belt death laser. (FRENCH HORN SFX) The LCLS doesn’t look like any of those. You can’t even really “see” the laser itself. You can see parts of it from ground level, like the buzzing building I mentioned at the start of the episode. The actual guts of the laser run underneath that, about 3 stories down, through a two-mile-long underground tunnel housing a linear accelerator, or “linac” for short — that’s the first “L” in LCLS. 


DOZIER: The inner workings of the LCLS are fairly convoluted, so I’ll spare you some of the details, but it all starts with a really, really bright flash of ultraviolet light — the same wavelength that gives you a sunburn.  


DOZIER: That light strikes a copper plate, releasing a burst of electrons. The electrons get channeled into a particle accelerator, which is where the real power of this machine kicks in.  


DOZIER: The accelerator for the LCLS uses a copper pipe that runs the length of the two-mile-long tunnel. Standing at one end of it, it’s hard to see the other. A sign on the wall reads “Speed Limit: 10 Miles Per Hour.” That’s just for work vehicles — the only limit to how fast the electrons can go is set by physics.  


DOZIER: Twenty-five feet up, at ground level, that buzzing building is filled with microwave generators called “klystrons.” Intense microwave pulses from the klystrons push the electrons in the accelerator tube to 99.9999999 percent of the speed of light. As they travel down the copper tube, they pass rows and rows of magnets — thousands in total. The magnets “wiggle” the electrons back and forth, causing them to emit x-rays.  


DOZIER: Further down the tunnel, additional hardware focuses the x-rays into a coherent beam that’s one of the most powerful sources of x-ray light in the world — a billion times brighter, in fact, than the ones that came before it. And it can pulse that beam incredibly quickly, 120 times per second. There you have it. One super-fast, super-bright x-ray laser, courtesy of the LCLS.  


DOZIER: So… what can you do with it? 

MIKE MINITTI: The LCLS, when it was brought online back in 2009 as a DOE user facility, they planned for the use of this super-bright x-ray source to study the ultrasmall and the ultrafast.  

DOZIER: That’s Mike Minitti, senior staff scientist at SLAC and the department head for the LCLS’s soft x-rays — which is sci-slang for the lower-energy x-rays the machine produces. 

MINITTI: The combination of these two aspects of very, very bright x-rays coming in very small slivers, very fast frame rates of time, this millionth of a billionth of a second in what’s called a femtosecond. This machine was the first of its kind to marry those two unique aspects. 

DOZIER: Let’s go back to the doctor’s office example. You know how when you break your arm, the x-ray machine takes a picture of it? Well, the LCLS does essentially that. But it can do it 120 times a second, zoomed all the way down to the molecular level. So instead of a single snapshot of a fractured bone, you can create a movie of chemical changes happening in slow-motion. And that’s pretty cool, but it’s not the only thing that makes the LCLS uniquely suited for capturing ultraprecise images. You heard Mike mention femtoseconds — that’s one quadrillionth of a second, or a millionth of a billionth of a second. That’s how fast the “shutter” of the LCLS’ x-ray camera can fire. So things that happen in a fraction of a blink of an eye can be captured with perfect clarity. It’s kind of hard to fathom the level of engineering precision it takes to maintain such perfect timing.  But SLAC’s team of accelerator physicists and technicians have gotten pretty comfortable working in the world of femtoseconds. 

MINITTI: Yeah. The engineering challenges on this thing are quite amazing… the tolerances to keep everything so perfectly aligned on this micron level over hundreds and hundreds of meters. It’s so precise that… in our early running days, we noticed the beam performance was better during the day or better during the night and basically, we had to account for the gravitational pull of the moon. 

DOZIER: Down at the far end of the accelerator tunnel are two experimental hubs, where scientists from around the world gather in a rabbit warren of research stations to put the laser to use. To get down to the majority of these experimental stations, you enter a metal doorway surrounded by concrete that’s buried in the side of a hill. It’s like an industrial hobbit hole. A sign reading “LCLS F-E-H” in red letters pokes up above the door – that’s the Far Experimental Hall.  

MIKE MINITTI: It’s like a bus station, where we deliver these x-rays to specific scientifically tuned experimental apparatus, and each of them have a specific purpose. Some of them are built to look at how the specific structure of crystals and biological samples in a single shot. The others are also then to do spectroscopy in a wavelength regime called soft x-rays, looking at how electrons and energy flows through material on a very fast timescale. And while others also then look at fundamental interactions of x-rays with simplistic molecules, say gas-phase molecules or liquid type samples. How does this x-ray energy radiate and transfer through and create a chemical change that we can plot? 

DOZIER: Mike gave me tour of the facility a while back. Down there in the subterranean laboratory, the various research stations are secured with sturdy-looking shielded doors and meticulously color-coded by experiment — red, yellow, purple, and so on. 

MINITTI: When the lead instrument scientists reached these end stations, they got to choose their hutch color, and they’re all color-coded and their tools are color-coded and things like this. It is very tribal, but when push comes to shove, it definitely is a team effort and we’re here to get the science done. 

DOZIER: The work done in these underground stations has led to breakthroughs in chemistry, physics, and biology. One of SLAC’s specialties is creating “molecular movies” that show atoms moving in real time through the workings of biology. Researchers at the LCLS have captured the most detailed images of the process of photosynthesis, where plants split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Much of the research also has medical and environmental applications. Some scientists have used it to decode the structures of proteins. Other studies have examined materials for better computer chips, the particles in air pollution, and supercooled water.  

DOZIER: This brings us to another marquis feature of the LCLS.  

MINITTI: Well, LCLS’s x-rays are so intense and they come in this tiny, tiny sliver of time, this femtosecond, this millionth of a billionth of a second, the interaction of the x-rays to the sample happens so quickly that it outruns the damage incurred by the x-rays passing through it.  

DOZIER: A lot of the research targets we just talked about — plant cells, proteins, delicate crystals, unstable chemical phases — don’t react well to being barbecued by a giant laser. 

MINITTI: They don’t last. These poor little biological samples are just annihilated. But we get all of the relevant information, you know, six orders of magnitude in time sooner than they blow up. 

DOZIER: The lightning-fast pulse of the LCLS means that by the time the fragile sample starts to disintegrate nanoseconds later, the scientists have long since learned everything they needed to know. Being able to capture the data before the x-rays destroy the samples makes a huge difference. Researchers knowing that they can “see” the samples as they really are – unaffected by the imaging process – helps them get data that’s useful in the real world. On the other hand, some of the scientists want to see their samples get destroyed. In fact, that’s why they’re studying them.  

EMMA MCBRIDE: So my main interest is studying how materials behave in extreme conditions. So the conditions I mean are really high pressures and temperatures, like you'd find in the cores of planets, in particular. 

DOZIER: Dr. Emma McBride is a researcher at SLAC with a focus on pushing materials to their furthest limits.  

MCBRIDE: So it's got applications for fusion, for clean energy, but for me what I'm mainly interested in is what happens to an atom when you put in so much energy through compressing it that you can change how it bonds, or even change the atom itself. 

DOZIER: Geological formations in her home country of Northern Ireland sparked her interest in this area. In particular, the Giant’s Causeway – a landscape of stone columns – made her wonder what was going on under the surface. 

MCBRIDE: What I learned in school was that these weird geologic formations formed either in the crust of the earth or on the surface from magma in the mantle of the earth pushing up. But I was always wondering what was actually happening in the mantle or further below it. And the astounding thing is that we have no way to go and probe it directly. We can't reach the center of the earth just by digging or something, because it's far too hot. So we have to mimic these conditions in the lab. 

DOZIER: Emma uses the LCLS’s Matter in Extreme Conditions experimental station. Wires, tubes, computers, and storage cabinets run along the walls of the large room, painted a deep yellow color. A narrow metal tube runs from the adjacent room into a silver cylinder. This brings the precious x-rays into the station. But before the x-rays come into play, the scientists need to create those extreme conditions for their experiment. The solution? Even more lasers. They shoot extremely fast, short pulses of green light at samples such as silicon. That forms a plasma, like the matter that makes up the sun. The sample’s atoms start expanding outwards. To create the right conditions, they then shoot a wave that creates extremely high pressure and compresses the plasma. Emma explains. 

MCBRIDE: The shockwave we're creating creates pressure and temperature conditions that last for around a nanosecond, so, a billionth of a second. But the LCLS produces x-rays that last for a millionth of a billionth of a second, which allows you to really freeze and capture this state. 

DOZIER: This reveals all sorts of useful insights, both for materials here on Earth and beyond. Because silicon is used in semiconductors, how it responds to stress can provide information to tech companies. Creating metallic hydrogen could be a major discovery, with the potential to be a room-temperature superconductor that transfers energy efficiently. This research can also result in things that sound like science fiction.  


MCBRIDE: We're also interested in larger planets like Neptune, where inside Neptune we've recently discovered that in the mantle of this planet, they have a lot of methane. A lot of carbon and hydrogen bonded together. And we've discovered if you compress it to just the right conditions of pressure and temperature, the carbon and hydrogen separate, and then you get the carbon crystallizing into diamond. … And so diamonds form inside these large planets and fall toward the center under gravity, so you can think of it like there's diamond rain happening inside Neptune, which is just crazy. But using the LCLS, we saw this happening — for a few nanoseconds, but we saw it. (LAUGHS) 

DOZIER: That’s right — diamond rain. You really can’t make this stuff up. And you definitely won’t catch a glimpse of it without a machine as powerful as the LCLS. 

MCBRIDE: We're taking snapshots that are faster than the atoms can actually rearrange themselves, so that's really cool. 

DOZIER: This has resulted in few surprises. 

MCBRIDE: I think everything, almost, that we've done has come as a big surprise. That's what's so amazing about this facility where you have x-rays that are so bright in such a short space of time that you can really probe exactly where the atoms are in your structure. 

DOZIER: But not every surprise has been a pleasant one.  

MCBRIDE: It's a pretty extreme environment we create. All these experiments are conducted in a large vacuum chamber with very energetic lasers. So it's hard enough to provide the x-rays, but then we also generate some x-rays by our lasers interacting with the target. That can totally swamp your signal, and it can also generate an electromagnetic pulse, which knocks out all your detectors. 

DOZIER: In fact, the first time that they ran experiments at the Matter in Extreme Conditions hutch, the scientists were in for quite a shock. Experiments at previous facilities used image plates to take data, like photographic film. The lasers didn’t affect them. In contrast, the sensors at the LCLS were a bit more sensitive. 

MCBRIDE: Our detectors were electronic, so the very first shot we did blew one of them up, which was very upsetting, as you can imagine. (LAUGHS) But we figured out how to get around that, thankfully. 

DOZIER: It was almost a very painful lesson. 

MCBRIDE: Well, the detector group are magicians, I think. They managed to bring it back to life after many months. But considering we had maybe four days of the experiment, it was a little soul-destroying to realize we did that to ourselves on day 1. 


DOZIER: As Mike Minitti rightly points out, the LCLS is still an incredibly capable machine. But that doesn’t mean the SLAC Lab team is content to leave it that way. 

MINITTI: We’ve had really great success here as a user facility delivering this great x-ray science with an accelerator that’s 60 plus years old. We’ve done a great job with that. But in order to take that next quantum leap in free electron x-ray science is take that source we have now, still use it, still have that capability, but we’re going to take it to the next level.  

DOZIER: Allow me to introduce: LCLS-II. For all of 2019 and the first few months of 2020, the facility shut down for a total overhaul, funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Here’s Mike Dunne, director of the LCLS, to walk us through the renovations. 

MIKE DUNNE: So what was happening there was 2 or 3 major things. So one major thing was ripping out the first third of our accelerator tunnel. About a kilometer worth of accelerator was taken out, and a whole new system was put in. So this goes from sort of 1960s technology, using copper pipes and able to get 100 pulses a second, to superconducting cryogenic technology that lets us scale all the way up to these million pulses per second. 

DOZIER: The new super-cooled model is going to be kept chilled to two degrees above absolute zero for truly extreme speed. 

DUNNE: So there's a big cryogenic refrigeration plant that's the size of a supermarket that sits next-door to the accelerator now. We've got these new superconducting cryogenic modules in the accelerator tunnel. So that was underway, it's still underway now. The reason we had to shut down was because the heart of LCLS, which is this so-called undulator, this set of magnets that converts electron energy into x-rays — we had to rip all of that out and put in a new system. So that took many months of extraction and installation, and at the same time we completely reconfigured our experimental hall, where the instruments live, to be able to put in these new instruments that, again, can take full advantage of the high repetition rate. 

DOZIER: I spoke to Mike after the newly revamped LCLS restarted in Spring 2020, after the team battled through weeks of delays and uncertainty to safely reopen the facility during California’s first wave of COVID-19. And there was a good reason for that urgency. 

DUNNE: Yeah, for sure… It’s very motivating in that some of the science we're looking at is tackling what is one of the biggest problems in our society today... When we had to be putting the facility back together again over the past few months, recommissioning it, the fact that we were doing so and our first experiments would be looking at the coronavirus itself was an incredibly motivating factor for all of us. 

DOZIER: When the LCLS came back online, its very first target was one of the key proteins the coronavirus uses to invade our cells.  

DUNNE: We spent the first few days taking images of the main protease of the coronavirus and looking at how it bonds onto various drug targets for antiviral drugs and compounds, looking at their 3D structure at the atomic level, and taking thousands and thousands of images to get really down to atomic-level information of the protease itself and all of these different drug targets.  

HASAN DEMIRCI: So this protein which is called the main protease is kind of like a molecular scissor.  

DOZIER: That’s Hasan Demirci, principal investigator on the initial research using LCLS to examine that “molecular scissor.” Hasan had spent seven years as a researcher at SLAC before relocating to Turkey to head a new lab focused on the 3D structure of molecules in biology.  

DEMIRCI: I moved to Istanbul, Koç University, in August 2019, and then the COVID started in December, so I had to build a lab in the middle of a perfect storm, from scratch. So that was absolutely like the worst that can happen, right? 

DOZIER: Instead of putting everything on hold, Hasan and his students set out to address the urgent need for more data on potential coronavirus treatments. Except, the best place to do that research was one of the hottest tickets in the scientific world. 

DEMIRCI: It kind of like brought an opportunity alongside, because a young P.I. like me should have just like wait maybe five years to get to a point where you can receive that precious beam time at LCLS. Right? It's like a hot, hot, hot light source. Everybody wants to do experiments there — how am I going to get the chance of executing an experiment at LCLS? It's a dream, right?  

DOZIER: That chance came a lot sooner than he expected. Between his SLAC connection and experience working on biological molecules — like virus proteins, for instance — Hasan’s new lab was perfectly positioned to lead the charge on studying the coronavirus using the newly upgraded LCLS. Perfect… except for the 10-hour time difference and nearly 7,000 miles between Istanbul and Palo Alto.  


DEMIRCI: It's an absolute jet lag. So, I think moving into the beam time was an absolute inferno. Like, it was just a hell. So the whole campus is closed, the only cars parked outside was my car, it's past midnight, we rarely get any sleep for like going into the beam time, like two, three months, we basically worked around the clock just to get those samples ready.  

DOZIER: To get the samples from his university to SLAC, Hasan’s team first needed to grow the delicate protein crystals in the lab, soak them with the drugs they wanted to test, and ship them halfway around the world *without freezing them* — which would compromise the fragile structures. Rather than go high-tech to protect the precious cargo, they used something simple, plentiful, and distinctively Turkish: lots and lots of cotton.  

DEMIRCI: So we grow these crystals here and then we wrap them with organic Turkish cottons, wrap it again and again and again, like we have two grams of sample, two kilogram of cotton — just to insulate the sample, so when they travel they don't get exposed to these temperature fluctuations, so they don't lose their quality, and we just hope for the best. And we prayed a lot, and our samples arrived to LCLS, and now we're waiting for the beam time... we're waiting and waiting and waiting, and then the day comes. We put our crystals in, and I said, "Are they going to diffract? Like, are we gonna see anything?" 

DOZIER: What they saw exceeded their wildest expectations.  

DEMIRCI: It was amazing. It was absolutely amazing. Stunning diffractions, absolutely gorgeous data, and then the best part of it is that once the samples arrived at LCLS, it was no different than being onsite, because the people at LCLS, they did a fantastic job. It was just like seamless data collection, seamless interfaces, so for us — whether I was in Turkey or I was at SLAC didn't make a bit of difference. 

DOZIER: With the newly revamped x-ray laser operating flawlessly, the team collected an avalanche of data on the coronavirus main protease in a short span of time, painting a clearer picture than ever before of the virus’ “molecular scissors” at room temperature. 


DOZIER: I asked Hasan about the pressure of being the first team to test out the LCLS after its long hiatus, especially with so much riding on his research. 

DEMIRCI: Somebody who doesn't know LCLS could have think that they were the guinea pigs, right, because you're the first one everything is up. But I know these people, right? I worked with them for over many years. And I know how perfectionist they are, right? Being first was like, an absolute privilege for us. So young people, you know, most of them have no LCLS experience. I think seeing that trust on the other side, put into my group, it was an absolute privilege and honor. 

DOZIER: Some of LCLS-II’s advanced capabilities are still a few years down the road, but on day 1 of the restart the machine was already firing on a new wavelength — enabling its x-rays to create images that are even more detailed than before.  

DUNNE: So that's the first step. Being able to push to much higher energies to get that higher resolution. The second step that's happening, which will come about in the next couple of years, is a factor of a few thousand increase in our x-ray power. We go from where we are today, which is about 120 x-ray pulses per second that the machine delivers, up to a million pulses per second. So that's a factor of 8,000. 

DOZIER: Most exciting of all, perhaps, is that the machine’s “shutter speed,” as we’ve been referring to it, has gotten *even faster* — so fast, in fact, that Mike Dunne and his colleagues are leaving the world of femtoseconds behind. 

DUNNE: There's a particular, worldwide-unique capability that we want to turn on first, which is going to even shorter time durations. So we currently live in this femtosecond world, turns out the step faster than a femtosecond is called an attosecond.  

DOZIER: An attosecond? 

DUNNE: An attosecond. Yeah, A-T-T-O, attosecond. And you think well, why is that important? It turns out, femtoseconds are important for looking at chemistry and quantum materials, and Emma McBride will have talked about replicating the conditions on the gas giant planets here on earth, and that kind of thing. And all of those, that chemistry of material science, evolves on a femtosecond timescale. But if you really want to look at the initiating events of chemistry — when does physics turn into chemistry? When does the motion of the electrons really start to move charge, pull those atoms around? That happens on about a 1 femtosecond, or a fraction of a femtosecond timescale. So what we call attoseconds. So if you really want to capture that initiation of chemistry — for example, if you're trying to capture sunlight and convert it into energy, you want to capture that flow of electrons through a molecule. Then you need to look on this attosecond timescale. 


DOZIER: While the LCLS has enabled scientists to do so much already, LCLS-II will allow them to do even more. Much more. For Emma McBride, it means that she and her colleagues can bring those materials to even more extreme conditions. They can get more information than ever on what happens if they compress these samples to ever higher pressures. The LCLS-II will also help her get more data per experimental run. 

MCBRIDE: So instead of waiting 10 minutes from one shot to the next, and then hoping that your laser and your target all behave the same, we'd be able to do a whole experiment — 4 different x-ray measurements in the space of 5 nanoseconds. That's huge. That's what I'm very excited about. 

DOZIER: And for Hasan Demirci, the prospect of an 8,000-fold increase in LCLS’s x-ray power is positively mouthwatering. 

DEMIRCI: We’re still processing the data, like, it’s so much data. This was LCLS at 120 hertz. And now the next chapter is going to be like 1 million image per second. So there's going to be more data, more science, more discoveries. I mean, what we've seen is an indication of what the future is going to be. It's like absolutely bright, absolutely amazing. So I can't wait to see the real LCLS operating at 1 million image per second. So that's going to be an absolute beast. Yeah. 

DOZIER: Getting ready for a leap of this magnitude isn’t just a matter of installing some new hardware, although that’s a big part of it. You also need to figure out just how you’re going to handle the astronomical increase in the amount of data LCLS-II is going to produce.  

DUNNE: So the march of data science, making use of artificial intelligence, machine learning to process that data ever and ever faster, is just as important as actually building this accelerator. So having these few years of installation actually gives us the window of opportunity to build up these supercomputers, build up the data systems, and build up the analysis techniques that then have a knock-on impact on self-driving cars and all kind of stuff across other areas. 

DOZIER: You don't do anything in a small way, do you? 

DUNNE: No, this truly is, every bit of the technology has to take these massive leaps. When LCLS first turned on a decade ago, it was a leap of a billion times in brightness. Normally in science you take a leap of 2 or 3 or maybe 10, if you're lucky. Now that was a leap of a billion. So the whole world had to transform to figure out how to deal with that. And now we're going through another leap of about 10,000, and it's 10,000 times in a way that taxes every single other part of the system. The computers, the data systems, the laser systems, the detectors, these undulators. So you've got to push the state of the art well beyond where it is now in order to be able to cope. 


DOZIER: For many scientific institutions, juggling all these different challenges simultaneously would be unthinkable. There’s just so much that needs to happen in perfect coordination, on such a grand scale, that it’s hard to even wrap your brain around it. But for Mike Dunne and his colleagues across the Department of Energy and our 17 National Labs, tackling “big science” projects — whether that’s a massive underground neutrino detector, the nuclear battery for a Mars rover, or the world’s brightest x-ray laser — it’s just what they do. 

DUNNE: I mean I think this is why National Labs exist, to bring together a whole wide range of different capabilities, whether it be modeling on a computer, whether it be data we can take using X-rays, and then pull that together to tackle some critical societal issue of the day, which at the moment is COVID, of course, and how viruses attack your body. There's other big issues of the day, as we know, energy systems and security and you name it. It's why I'm particularly proud to work at a National Lab, because you know you can have the capability to tackle some of these really, really important problems. 


DOZIER: That’s all for this episode of Direct Current. If you want to dive deeper into the ultra-small, ultra-fast world of SLAC Lab’s x-ray science, we’ve got photos, videos, links and more on our episode page, which you can find at Thank you so, so much to the folks at SLAC who shared their time and energy to make this episode possible — all while working on the big LCLS-II upgrade project. In particular I’d like to thank my guests, Hasan Demirci, Mike Minitti, Emma McBride, and Mike Dunne, and the rest of the SLAC communications team for their assistance. Thanks as well to Shannon Shea in our Office of Science, who was a big help on the script for this episode. If you've got a question about this episode or want to leave us some feedback, email us at, or tweet @energy. And if you're enjoying the show, share it with a friend and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. Direct Current is produced by me, Matt Dozier. Sarah Harman creates original artwork for all of our episodes. This is a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. Thanks for listening.