Director's Colloquium

The Laser Revolution in X-ray Physics: Coherent X-rays, Free-Electron Lasers and Biomolecules

Keith Nugent

Professor Keith A Nugent
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coherent X-ray Science
La Trobe University

The development of the laser revolutionised optical physics. The extension of the laser into the X-ray wavelengths has taken a long time to bring to practice but the first operating hard X-ray laser commenced operations at Stanford in 2009. In 2011, the Japanese facility commenced operation with the European facility planned to start in 2015. Further facilities are being planned or constructed in Switzerland, China and South Korea.

It is almost exactly one hundred years ago that Australia’s first Nobel Prize winners, the father (W.H.) and son (W.L) Bragg team, was awarded for the development of what we now know as crystallography. One of the career triumphs of the W.L. Bragg was the creation of a research environment in which his methods could be used to uncover the structure of a range of biomolecules, leading to a slew of further Nobel Prizes including that for the discovery of the structure of DNA.

The flagship goal for the international X-ray laser community is to continue the structural biology program pioneered by W.L. Bragg and his colleagues by, ironically, removing the need for crystals and therefore for crystallography. The new X-ray sources – X-ray Free-Electron Lasers – offer around a ten orders of magnitude increase in coherent X-ray flux in comparison with a synchrotron source and so offer the promise of being able to image single molecules. More broadly, of course, such an increase in capability will, one would think, inevitably lead to the discovery of new physics as happened with visible lasers.

In this talk I will describe these new linear accelerator-based X-ray sources and some of the recent work that is emerging from them. I will place a particular emphasis on the international quest to image the structure of single bio-molecules.

Keith Nugent holds a PhD in laser physics from the Australian National University. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society.He has just taken up the position of Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at La Trobe University. Prior to that, Professor Nugent was Director of the Australian Synchrotron, Laureate Professor of Physics at the University of Melbourne and Research Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coherent X-ray Science, a multiple-institution centre which undertakes research at the interface of physics, biology and chemistry. Professor Nugent was twice awarded an ARC Federation Fellowship and has been the recipient of numerous awards for his work.

Please join us in the RSPE tearoom from 11:30am for snacks

Event recording

Date & time

Thu 7 Mar 2013, 12–1pm


Leonard Huxley theatre


Staff, students and public welcome