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UK provides first advanced detector for world's largest X-ray laser

17 August 2017

4 people standing around the Large Pixel Detector exchanging keys

Handing over the keys to the Large Pixel Detector, from left to right: STFC Technology Department Division Head Marcus French, European XFEL Detector Group Leader Dr Markus Kuster, European XFEL Managing Director Professor Dr Robert Feidenhans'l and STFC Application Engineer Matthew Hart.
(Credit: European XFEL)

One of the world’s fastest detectors, capable of capturing images in billionths of a second, has been developed by the UK for use at the world’s largest X-ray laser, the European XFEL.

The Large Pixel Detector (LPD) is the first advanced detector to be installed at the European XFEL in Hamburg, Germany. The LPD is a cutting-edge X-ray camera developed at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford.

Dr Brian Bowsher, Chief Executive of STFC, said: “This is a significant milestone for the European XFEL and we are delighted to make such an important contribution to the project.

“International collaborations are key to developing these state-of-the-art facilities and this work reinforces the international role STFC and the UK has in science.

“It’s an extremely exciting time for the XFEL facility, and I am looking forward to seeing the first experiments taking place.”

The LPD is the first fully functional X-ray light detector to record at a rate of 4.5 MHz—4.5 million pictures per second, fast enough to keep up with the European XFEL’s high repetition rate of 27,000 pulses per second, which are arranged into short bursts. The LPD will allow users to take clear snapshots of ultrafast processes such as chemical reactions as they take place.

STFC’s Matthew Hart, the lead engineer who has worked on the LPD since 2007, said: “It’s such a great feeling to see the detector installed ready for experiments. It’s taken 10 years of development to meet some really challenging requirements and finally the day has arrived to see it working for real.

“It was made possible thanks to the world class engineering team we have at STFC’s Rutherford lab in the UK, huge credit goes to them for their hard work and commitment over such a long and difficult project.

“Now the detector is in the hands of the scientists at XFEL I’m really looking forward to hearing about their research and discoveries they will make.”

Side picture of the Large Pixel Detector

The Large Pixel Detector.
(Credit: European XFEL)

The LPD operates far beyond the scope of any commercial detector or camera. Its design enables the detector to capture an image every 222 nanoseconds (billionths of a second)—an unprecedented rate that allows it to capture individual ultrashort X-ray laser flashes from the European XFEL. Additionally, the detector has a very high so-called dynamic range, meaning it can pick up signals as weak as a single particle of light, also known as a photon, and as strong as a flash of several tens of thousands of photons in two neighbouring pixels.

In a typical experiment at the European XFEL, users will place samples in the path of incoming X-ray laser pulses in order to study their structure at the atomic level. Detectors will pick up the X-ray laser light scattering off of the sample, which often consists of individual molecules. The LPD’s high dynamic range allows for very high resolutions showing the finest details from samples.

European XFEL Detector Development group leader Markus Kuster said: “The years of intensive collaboration with STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory on the LPD have paid off, and resulted in a unique detector that can record data on the timescale of a billionth of a second.”

Media contact:

Becky Parker-Ellis
STFC Media office
01793 444564

About European XFEL

The accelerator tunnel for the European XFEL

The European XFEL accelerator tunnel.
(Credit: European XFEL)

The European XFEL is an international research facility of superlatives: 27,000 X-ray flashes per second and a brilliance that is a billion times higher than that of the best conventional X-ray sources will open up completely new opportunities for science. Research groups from around the world will be able to map the atomic details of viruses, decipher the molecular composition of cells, take three-dimensional “photos” of the nanoworld, “film” chemical reactions, and study processes such as those occurring deep inside planets. The construction and operation of the facility is entrusted to the European XFEL GmbH, a non-profit company that cooperates closely with the research centre DESY and other organisations worldwide.

The company, which has a workforce of about 300 employees, entered in its operating phase on 4 July and has selected the first 14 groups of scientists to carry out their ambitious research projects at the facility from September 2017, including a team from the UK. With construction and commissioning costs of 1.22 billion euro (at 2005 price levels) and a total length of 3.4 kilometres, the European XFEL is one of the largest and most ambitious European research projects to date. At present, 11 countries have signed the European XFEL convention: Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. The United Kingdom is in the process of joining.

View the European XFEL website for more information.


In December 2014 the UK government announced that the UK would invest up to £30M (about 38 M€) to become a full member of the European XFEL as the result of the input received to the BIS Capital Consultation exercise. The UK will become the 12th member of the European XFEL project and STFC is now working with the European XFEL project and the other partners to negotiate UK membership.

Read more on STFC's contribution to the European XFEL.

Diamond and XFEL

The UK, through STFC-funded Diamond Light Source, is also the host for the UK’s XFEL hub. Housed within the existing Diamond infrastructure, the hub will enable users to fully prepare for their experiments with currently operating XFELs and the European XFEL when it comes online in Hamburg in 2017. The UK Hub (which is directly supported by MRC, BBSRC and the Wellcome Trust) will provide support in terms of sample preparation, data processing and training. There will also be a dedicated fibre link from Hamburg to Harwell enabling users to carry out data analysis back in the UK, with support from the UK Hub team.

Read more about the UK’s XFEL hub on the Diamond website.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000