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A new breakthrough may make high-quality synchrotron X-rays, currently produced by only a few immense facilities scattered around the world, available to practically any research laboratory or medical clinic.

Synchrotron X-rays can produce high-quality images at lower doses of radiation than conventional X-ray generators. But the devices used to create them can take up an area the size of a village. The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, for example, includes a storage ring 844 meters (2,769 feet) in circumference.

The new approach, developed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Extreme Light Laboratory, uses an accelerator and synchrotron with a combined length less than the diameter of a dime. Instead of using a huge ring to accelerate electrons to very high energy levels and then make them change direction (thus generating X-rays), the new device relies on two precisely focused laser beams and a gas jet.

Getting the tiny beams to collide was the key, according to Donald Umstadter, PhD, director of the Extreme Light Laboratory:

Our aim and timing needed to be as good as that of two sharpshooters attempting to collide their bullets in midair. Colliding our ‘bullets’ might have been even harder, since they travel at nearly the speed of light.

Dr. Umstadter was quoted in a university news release. He is senior author of an article about the research published online Sunday in Nature Photonics.

Potentially, Dr. Umstadter said, the breakthrough could be comparable to the development of the personal computer, which gave practically everyone access to the kind of computing power that had theretofore been available only to the lucky few who had access to a large mainframe. X-ray machines based on the new technology could fit into a clinic or a truck, leading to widespread new uses for advanced X-ray technology for everything from security screening to scientific research to high-quality medical imaging.

Nathan Powers, a PhD student in the Extreme Light Lab and lead author of the journal article, said, “Our hope is that this new technology will lead to applications that benefit both science and society.”

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