ASU receives $90M grant for particle accelerator X-ray research

ASU will build a second particle accelerator with the grant. ASU scientists say its usefulness for research is endless, including COVID-19 and cancer research.
Published: Mar. 29, 2023 at 1:16 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 29, 2023 at 1:46 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — Arizona State University is receiving a $90.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build the world’s first compact X-ray Free Electron Laser, which researchers believe could lead to discoveries in a wide range of fields.

Professor William Graves, Ph.D., the chief scientist and principal investigator on the project, showed Arizona’s Family the prototype. “The whole point here is to make a new kind of X-ray source,” Graves said. “They’re about a mile long. They’re huge particle accelerators and they cost about a billion dollars to build. We did some cool tricks with magnets. We actually got rid of certain magnets, replaced them with very high-powered lasers, and that let us shrink our particle accelerator just about six feet long.”

The goal is to create movies of molecules to see reactions happening. Around the world, some particle accelerators are able to capture molecular movies, but they are much larger. Petra Fromme, Ph.D., the scientific director of CXFEL, said potential applications of the instrument are endless and could include research about COVID-19 and cancer. “We want to investigate enzymes which are involved in brain cancer,” she said. “For example, we can take the protein involved in those cancers and mix it with a drug and see all the changes which happen, and then we can design drugs which bind much stronger.”

That could mean more targeted therapies at lower doses, which could mean more manageable side effects. Fromme says experiments with CXFEL could also drive innovation that will make the cell phone in your pocket smaller. “You can now investigate the surface of these semiconductor chips and really see the individual elements. Then the companies can build even much smaller chips and thereby make the cell phones even smaller and more powerful,” she said. Fromme said that this kind of technology applies to cellphones, computers, microelectronics, and new storage devices to boost memory capacity.

The science is just getting started on this prototype. “We made our first X-rays just a month ago,” Graves said. “It’s incredibly exciting. And obviously, I’m not a young person, and just toward the end of my career to have achieved these things is really very rewarding. It’s wonderful.” Because of the NSF grant, construction will start soon on a second instrument. “We hope to reproduce many of these so hospitals, medical labs, semiconductor fab plants can all have one,” Graves said.

“We have entered a new frontier in making scientific discovery more accessible and more affordable,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “This is one of the most significant ASU research projects to date, and it is one that will have a positive impact in many critical areas related to the world’s grand challenges.”