UWM scientists to contribute to first-of-its kind scientific imaging effort

MILWAUKEE _ The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is a longtime partner on a grant from the National Science Foundation that supports the development of the next generation of X-ray Free Electron Lasers (XFELs) – novel instruments used to unmask phenomena that have never before been observed.

Since 2009, XFELs have enabled scientists to examine how molecules in the human body and in a variety of materials change over split-second intervals, important knowledge to help understand human health and medicine. The technology will also help advance renewable energy research, quantum technologies and semiconductor manufacturing.

But, because of the XFEL’s kilometer-long size and billion-dollar construction costs, the technology is available at only five facilities globally. The goal of this NSF grant, amounting to $90.8 million, is to build a compact XFEL, or CXFEL, that can accomplish the same tasks but in the space of a single room. The funding was awarded to Arizona State University and 11 collaborating institutions, including UWM.

CXFELs will make the state-of-the-art tool more accessible for use by universities, hospitals and semiconductor manufacturing facilities.

UWM’s role

Many questions in science increasingly focus on understanding changes that happen at the atomic scale that cannot be observed with optical methods, said Abbas Ourmazd, UWM distinguished professor of physics.

To understand UWM’s part of the project, funded at nearly $3 million, it helps to know more about how the technology works

The XFEL shoots short bursts of X-rays at samples, taking a “snapshot” of a molecule every quadrillionth of a second or less. These pulses are short enough to directly track the motions of atoms.

Then, data from an ensemble of millions of snapshots over time can be mathematically reconstructed into three-dimensional movies of molecular structural changes.

To do this requires powerful machine-learning algorithms developed by a UWM team led by Ourmazd. The machine-learning approach the team developed can extract up to 100 times more information from highly incomplete and noisy XFEL data.

The UWM team includes Professor Peter Schwander, Senior Scientist Russell Fung and Assistant Professor Ahmad Hosseinizadeh.

In addition to analyzing the collected data, the role of the UWM team includes automating and optimizing data collection at the new facility. The project is the culmination of over a decade of collaboration between ASU and UWM, Ourmazd said.

UWM scientists from both the Ourmazd lab and the lab of UWM Professor Marius Schmidt have used XFEL imaging to answer biological questions, such as how proteins accomplish biological tasks inside the body, how photo-sensitive proteins respond to light, and how a virus infects a healthy cell.

This video from ASU explains how the CXFEL will work.

For more information, contact Abbas Ourmazd, ourmazd@uwm.edu, or Laura Otto, llhunt@uwm.edu, 414-303-4868.