What research is planned for the ASU CXFEL?

At Arizona State University, we have big plans to use the compact X-ray light source and compact X-ray electron laser for medical imaging, making biomolecular movies, unraveling photosynthesis, chemical catalysis and attosecond physics.

Medical imaging

We will use the the compact X-ray light source — phase one of the project — for phase-contrast medical imaging. These images are capable of examining soft tissues in the body, including patient biopsy samples of cancer patients, with unprecedented resolution. ASU is collaborating with Mayo Clinic to study and apply phase-contrast imaging for next-generation diagnosis of disease.

Biomolecular movies

The most important area for ASU research is Petra Fromme’s time-resolved studies of biomolecules “in action.” All processes in nature are highly dynamic, but so far we have only static pictures of the molecules that drive life on earth.

The new CXFEL technology solves the century-old challenge of structure determination: X-rays damage biomolecules. So the same methods that were used to interrogate the structure of the biomolecules destroyed them. With the short CXFEL pulses, ASU scientists follow reactions of biomolecules in real time without any damage, as the pulses are so short that movie frames are recorded before any destructions take place.  

We use new technology to study the cause of disease at the atomic level, with the goal to unravel the mechanism of how cancer cells can divide unchecked and how molecules allow pathogens to infect human cells. The goal is to block their destructive action by development of novel drugs, with tight, very specific binding that kills cancer cells or pathogens without harming healthy cells.


We are studying photosynthesis, which supplies the energy for all higher life on earth by converting the light from the sun into chemical energy. All the oxygen we breathe, all the food we eat and all the fossil fuels on earth are generated by this process.

Our goal is to understand the mechanism of photosynthesis at the atomic level toward a molecular movie of how plants capture the light and split water to generate oxygen with only proteins and earth-abundant metals. Once we discover nature’s secrets to produce unlimited energy from sunlight, we can build systems as efficient as nature designs and as stable as man-made ones. 

Chemical catalysis

Through chemical catalysis, we aim to understand at the atomic level how molecules are formed and study materials. This is a new frontier involving very subtle effects in materials at the quantum level that cause them to display unique characteristics and behavior. These studies will lead to clean, new synthesis pathways for chemical and materials with amazing new features, such as strong but biodegradable plastic, very flexible building materials and even the further miniaturization of semiconductor chips for information technology.

Attosecond physics

We aim to use our second-generation instrument: the compact X-ray free electron laser in attosecond physics. Here, ASU researchers will examine how molecules connect with each other and study the dynamics of ultrafast dynamics at a previously impossible time speed. With attosecond-pulse duration, we will explore the unknown, looking at the dynamics of the fastest processes in nature as well as nano and quantum materials. This research could lead to the development of superconductivity at room temperature, which could have a profound effect on energy use and contribute to the development of quantum computing. The CXFEL is a precise probe for such investigations.

Who are the scientists involved in the CXFEL project?

The CXFEL project at Arizona State University is led by the Petra Fromme and the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery. The accelerator itself is the brainchild of physicist William Graves. For 30 years, he has worked on the design and construction of particle accelerators.

Fromme, the Paul V. Galvin Professor of Molecular Sciences, Regents Professor and director of the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery, and John Spence, the Richard Snell Professor of Physics and Regents Professor, have pioneered ultrafast X-ray science at the big XFELs under an NSF grant known as BioXFEL, which develops novel technology for their study of the dynamics of biological processes with XFELs.

Fromme’s center of ASU scientists and collaborators across the planet are internationally known trailblazers. In 2012, the journal Science credited the team for one of the top 10 scientific breakthroughs of the year. The finding that earned this accolade was determining the 3D structure of a protein for the first time using femtosecond nanocrystallography, a technique they developed using the free electron laser at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The discovery was based on crystals grown in living cells and revealed the structure and function of the protein that destroys red blood cells in the mosquito-borne disease of sleeping sickness.

In 2014, the team published a groundbreaking study that showed the first snapshots of photosynthesis in action as it split water into protons, electrons and oxygen. This is the process that converts sunlight and water into the food we eat and maintains the oxygen atmosphere we need to survive. The discovery opens the door to our ability to mimic photosynthesis and perhaps create an oxygen-producing artificial leaf.

More recently, the team has used the technology to:

  • Capture — for the first time — snapshots of the crystal structures related to the biochemical pathways that allow us to breathe.
  • Identify a riboswitch that opens up the possibility of using bacterial mechanisms to fight human disease.
  • Determine the structure of rhodopsin, a molecular complex responsible for our sense of sight.

Reveal the fine details of how an experimental drug works to regulate blood pressure, paving the way to the development of novel drugs to regulate hypertension.