The diamonds adorning the fingers of married women everywhere might be labeled as flawless, but compared to the gems at Argonne National Laboratory, they might as well be raw stones.
Using the most immaculate diamonds in the world, scientists from Argonne and elsewhere are creating a powerful, next generation X-ray laser that will shine new light on some of the smallest and most complex materials on Earth, potentially leading to new drugs or medical treatments for a broad range of diseases and conditions.
"Everything around us can be studied with X-ray lasers," said Yuri V. Shvyd'ko, a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, who along with colleagues at Brookhaven National Laboratory recently co-authored a paper in the journal Nature Physics. "The only way we can see to build the next generation of X-ray lasers is by using diamond crystals."
X-rays have been around since the 19th century, but X-ray lasers are a much more recent development. The first X-ray laser was unveiled less than one year ago, at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory, which is buried underground and measures several football fields in length. Scientists around the world use the X-ray laser for a variety of experiments in biology, physics and chemistry.
However, the number of experiments greatly outnumbers the available time that the laser can operate. To solve this problem, scientists are trying to develop other ways to create X-ray lasers.
Most lasers on Earth function by bouncing one wavelength of light back and forth between two mirrors, which are usually made of silicon. Silicon mirrors won't reflect more powerful X-rays, however.
In theory, a mirror made of diamond would reflect virtually all X-rays. The only problem with the theory was that it calls for a completely flawless diamond. No such diamond existed.
Scientists would have to build their nearly flawless diamond by spraying carbon into a high pressure chamber and letting the atoms arrange themselves into the crystal's namesake geometry. In other words, researchers had to manufacture their own diamonds.
The diamond the Argonne and Brookhaven scientists used wasn't completely flawless, but it was close enough.
"This is a huge milestone in this type of laser research," said Stephen Durbin, a scientist at Purdue University who wrote an accompanying article in Nature Physics about the diamond mirror.
"This is a situation where people are extremely anxious to do a long list of very important experiments," said Durbin. The existing facility at Stanford, and others being built in Germany and the U.S., will help eliminate this backlog of experiments, but it will still take years to do all the experiments scientists want.
The potential range of these experiments is huge. X-ray lasers will not be used like traditional medical X-rays — diagnosing broken bones or lung problems.
Instead, X-rays lasers would take pictures of much smaller things like proteins, drugs or other molecules. To take a picture of these tiny structures, scientists have to carefully and painstakingly grow entire crystals of these molecules. An X-ray laser would eliminate the need for these crystals; a single molecule could take a better picture than anything currently available. Because of the wavelength of an X-ray laser is so small, they could also precisely destroy cancer cell or treat other diseases.
The diamond mirrors only reflects X-rays. Other technology is needed to create the X-rays and, once they are reflected, concentrate them. The diamond mirrors might be small, but the light sources and concentrators will still be large and expensive to run.
This kind of fundamental research won't immediately lead to new advances. It will take years before diamond based X-ray lasers are built, and even more time before consumers see any tangible results.
© 2012 Discovery Channel