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New test bed probes the origin of pulses at Linac Coherent Light Source

Posted July 24, 2013

It all comes down to one tiny spot on a diamond-cut, highly pure copper plate. That’s where every X-ray laser pulse at SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source gets its start. That tiny spot must be close to perfect or it can impair and even halt LCLS operations.


SLAC in May 2013 opened a new test facility at the Accelerator Structure Test Area (ASTA) to study the complex physics and chemistry that cause that shiny copper slab, called a cathode, to degrade over time, and to identify ways to maintain and improve its performance.

“ASTA is the ideal place, the perfect place to test the cathode, RF (radio-frequency) gun and the laser for the future demands of LCLS and LCLS-II, the planned upgrade of LCLS,” said Feng Zhou, a SLAC physicist who has served since March 2013 as a project leader for cathode research and development at ASTA.

Zhou added, “Understanding cathode performance and degradation has been kind of a black art, and ASTA will for the first time allow very detailed analysis aimed at maximizing performance and longevity.”

The copper cathode is part of the photocathode gun, the first step in a mile-long chain of precisely tuned equipment that makes up the LCLS. In the photocathode gun, a rapid-fire ultraviolet laser strikes a millimeter-size spot on the cathode. This generates tight bunches of electrons that are accelerated in a 1-kilometer section of SLAC’s linear accelerator. The electrons then travel through a series of magnets, called an undulator, and emit ultrabright X-ray light that travels to LCLS experimental stations at a rate of more than 100 pulses per second.

Troubles with the LCLS cathode, including technical issues that required change-out of a cathode about two years ago, sparked SLAC’s push for the cathode test bed, said Erik Jongewaard, a lead engineer for the project and former project leader who oversaw the construction of the test facility at ASTA.

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