ASU’s compact accelerator X-ray passes initial tests, begins commissioning process

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Friday, February 10, 2023 - 7:15am
Updated: Friday, February 10, 2023 - 7:22am

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Arizona State University

ASU has finished building a “tabletop” particle accelerator small enough to fit in a university basement but almost as powerful as its mile-long, billion-dollar forerunners.

The device powers a special X-ray that can see not just bone, but soft tissues — and much more.

On Feb. 2, after more than six years of development and component testing, the Compact X-Ray Light Source (CXLS) generated its first X-rays. A detector confirmed they matched the type the team intended the device to generate.

Chief project scientist and director of accelerator science at the Biodesign Institute William Graves described his reaction as “euphoria and relief.”

“We were very excited, of course,” he said. “We had about 15 people in the control room and everybody was clapping and applauding.”

Unlike X-ray tubes used in hospitals, the Compact X-Ray Light Source quick-fires torrents of X-rays in very short pulses. It’s like a bit like cranking up a camera’s shutter speed to capture a hummingbird’s wing in flight — if that shutter speed lasted a mere hundreds of femtoseconds (a femtosecond equals a millionth of a billionth of a second).

Chief project scientist William Graves
Arizona State University
Chief project scientist William Graves with one of the magnetic assemblies that focus electrons as they exit the accelerator en route to a laser that will cause them to "wiggle" and emit X-rays.

“What that allows us to do is to take kind of stroboscope movies of things that would normally blur out because of the motion,” said Graves.

That includes the structures and motions of proteins, nerves, cells and molecules. Such capabilities could advance fields ranging from drug development to material science.

“Getting things in motion and seeing how they function. You know, what do cells do? What do viruses do? How does chemistry work? We can break it down in time. That's what's so exciting about it.”

Graves believes the smaller footprint could move the technology from national laboratories to smaller facilities like hospitals or semiconductor fabs.

“We’re not quite as powerful as the big ones, but we can do a lot of the same science,” he said. “And because we can put it into scientific laboratories, it really expands the capabilities of it.”

The CXLS is currently in its shake-down commissioning phase. The team plans to begin its first experiments later this year.

The CXLS measures 30 fee
Arizona State University
The CXLS measures 30 feet but could be reduced to one-third that size.