Infrared flashes for astronomy and medicine

The Max Planck–Radboud University Center will expand possible applications of infrared free-electron lasers in the coming years

June 17, 2021

The application of free-electron lasers emitting infrared light reaches from biomedicine to chemistry and materials science to astrophysics. To further advance the technology and the research such lasers allow, the Max Planck Society and Radboud University (Nijmegen, NL) have established the Max Planck–Radboud University Center. Through their collaboration, they will focus not only on research, but also on training early career researchers.

Life as we know it is possible only with organic molecules. These are found not only on Earth, but also in astonishing diversity in many parts of the universe. Astrophysicists recognise this from the infrared light they collect from space with specialised telescopes. In the spectra of this light, the extra-terrestrial building blocks of life leave traces or “chemical fingerprints”. However, astrophysicists are often unable to identify what exactly is drifting through interstellar space because they lack a comparison (i.e. a database of matching chemical fingerprints). This is precisely what can be created with an infrared free-electron laser (IR-FEL). Such an instrument can generate infrared spectra under conditions similar to those in space.

Insights into defective protein folding and more targeted chemistry

These instruments also provide insights into the structure of proteins that cannot be obtained in other ways, or only with considerable effort. For example, analyses with an IR-FEL could provide information on whether proteins are correctly folded. Errors in the arrangement of protein chains can lead to Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. In order to better understand the causes of such diseases, biologists and physicians first need to know which defects can occur and how they come about. The researchers at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society and Radboud University cooperating in the new Max Planck Center want to contribute to this error analysis. They also hope that the experiments with the IR-FEL will provide detailed insights into how chemical reactions take place, especially with respect to which intermediate products are produced and how they are further processed. A precise knowledge of these processes can help direct a reaction to one of many possible products. This can be useful when synthesizing complex sugar molecules in the lab, which is notoriously difficult. 

An FEL generates laser light according to the synchrotron principle – by sending free electrons on a slalom course through a series of magnets. In each curve, the charged particles emit light of a single colour. An IR-FEL is a versatile and powerful instrument that has applications in all natural sciences. Unlike a conventional IR spectrometer, it can handle minute gaseous quantities or enable novel measurements on liquid or solid samples. It can also be used to study how the sample molecules change over time.  

Positions for 20 early career researchers and training for researchers from all over the world

However, the way an IR-FEL generates light means that such installations can easily fill an entire sports hall. This is probably one reason why there are only a few of them in the world. Two of them are located at the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin and at Radboud University in Nijmegen – both customized in-house instruments, which were developed by the teams themselves. But the teams at the two institutions have not only developed the devices themselves, they are also working out how to design experiments in order to exploit the full potential of the instruments. “We are continually expanding our expertise in the development and optimal use of free-electron infrared lasers”, says Britta Redlich, professor at Radboud University. “The Max Planck–Radboud University Center enables an intensive exchange of experiences and new ideas”.  

Because experimental technology with an IR-FEL is still relatively new, there are not yet many specialists who can set up and use such an instrument in a meaningful way. “In addition to the development and application of infrared free-electron lasers, one focus of the new Max Planck–Radboud University Center is on familiarizing young researchers with this technology”, says Gerard Meijer, Director at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society. Around 20 doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers will be able to acquire knowledge and skills in the relevant experiments during the first five-year funding period. There will also be conferences, workshops, and training courses that will spread the knowledge beyond the center. The cooperation partners thus want to ensure that IR-FEL are used in all branches of science in which they can provide useful insights.

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