Using a method known as ultrafast electron diffraction (UED), a scientific instrument from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory reveals nature's fastest processes, including the rapid motions of atoms and molecules.

By combining the electron camera with SLAC's X-ray free electron laser, researchers will be able to better understand ultrafast processes in complex systems ranging from magnetic data storage devices to chemical reactions.

The SLAC team can now study motions in materials that take place in less than 100 quadrillionths of a second.

For the camera to operate, a pulsed electron beam is created by shining laser pulses on a metal photocathode. The beam, accelerated by a radiofrequency field, is then focused by a magnetic lens. The beam travels through a sample and scatters off the sample’s atomic nuclei and electrons, creating a diffraction image on a detector. Changes in these diffraction images over time are used to reconstruct ultrafast motions of the sample’s interior structure.

By using both the electron and X-ray approach, the SLAC-led team is already studying the link between the magnetic behavior of certain materials and their structural properties; the data could then be used to develop next-generation data storage devices.

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Also: Learn about a Next-Generation Integrated Camera (NIC).