SLAC Research Lights Way to Commercial X-ray Technology

December 18, 2012

A technology company that grew out of accelerator research at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory announced Thursday its first sale of an X-ray-generating source – a miniaturized synchrotron to be used for biomedical imaging at a research center in Germany.

Ronald Ruth, a professor on the particle physics and astrophysics faculty, co-founded Palo Alto-based Lyncean Technologies Inc. in 2001. The company's "Compact Light Source," a desk-sized storage ring and all its components, is about the size of a small conference room and represents "a new breed of X-ray source, with unique properties," said Ruth. "It's the world's smallest colliding-beam storage ring."

The company will deliver a new Compact Light Source in 2014 to the Center for Advanced Laser Applications, a joint project of Ludwig Maximilians University (LMU) of Munich and the Technical University Munich (TUM).

Prototypes at the company's headquarters have already proven effective in detecting tumors and lung disease, as they can image soft tissues that can be out of reach for other imaging techniques and devices. Experiments conducted with the devices have been highlighted in scientific publications, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of Synchrotron Radiation.

Breakthrough discoveries at SLAC in the 1990s – part of a research and development effort to improve the performance of electron beams and reduce the size and cost of next-generation linear colliders and particle-accelerating storage rings – laid the groundwork for the device.

The device shrinks accelerator technology by using infrared laser light, rather than bulky magnets, to generate X-rays as the laser pulses collide with accelerated bunches of electrons; and the X-rays can be fine-tuned and focused down to a size of about 45 microns (a micron is one-thousandth of a millimeter).

The emitted X-rays are optimized for imaging, and their applications are not limited to medical research – it could be "just about any type of thing you can do with a big synchrotron," including nanoscale studies of semiconductors and other materials. "X-rays are playing a growing role in areas like structural biology, medical science, nanotech and fuel-cell research," Ruth said.

Ruth said the company is seeking to make X-ray research more accessible, and that the Compact Light Source can complement larger synchrotrons by providing a less costly, more accessible test bed for experiments that may ultimately move to those larger facilities.

In that sense, the Compact Light Source can serve as a sort of single workstation, like a personal computer, while the larger facilities, such as SLAC's Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, continue to play a "supercomputer" role for X-ray research, he said.

"Synchrotrons are pushing the envelope, and Lyncean is pushing the breadth of the applications. We are going local so people have control of their own facility," Ruth said.

Taking the computer analogy further, Ruth said a next step for Lyncean will be to build specialized add-ons for its Compact Light Source that cater to different sample types and enable different imaging and analysis techniques – like an "app" development project.

Former SLAC engineering physicist Rod Loewen and former SLAC mechanical engineer Jeff Rifkin also are co-founders at Lyncean. Loewen is an accelerator and laser physicist at Lyncean, and Rifkin had served as vice president and general manager for Lyncean from 2002 to 2010.

Zhirong Huang, a SLAC senior staff scientist who is a part of the lab's Free-Electron Laser and Beam Physics Department, is also credited with early contributions in the development of the underlying technology for the Compact Light Source, performed as a part of his doctoral dissertation in the late 1990s, with Ruth as his academic advisor.

After studying the interaction of laser pulses and electron bunches, "We started realizing this is a powerful X-ray source," Huang said. "At the time we realized there may be some industrial applications. Ron really had a vision to take this further."

When the founders first considered launching the company, Ruth said, "It seemed to us that this was a way of fostering X-ray science. For me, personally, working on high-energy physics, I thought, 'Couldn't we have a bigger impact on society?'" That led to some soul searching, and his conclusion: "Maybe we can."

Ruth said the sale of the company's first Compact Light Source has been a long journey and represents "a big jump – going from ideas and first proof of principle" to commercialization.

Norbert Holtkamp, director of the Accelerator Directorate at SLAC, said, "National laboratories are unique environments where research, creativity and engineering meet – three critical ingredients in developing innovative technologies. Ruth and his team have made an outstanding contribution by taking this technology to the marketplace, and I wish them success."