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Bigger, faster, more powerful: SLAC’s new X-ray laser data system will process a million images a second

By February 26, 2021 No Comments

When upgrades to the X-ray laser at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are complete, the powerful new machine will capture up to 1 terabyte of data per second; that’s a data rate equivalent to streaming about one thousand full-length movies in just a single second, and analyzing every frame of each movie as they zoom past in this super-fast-forward mode.
Data experts at the lab are finding ways to handle this massive amount of information as the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) upgrades come on line over the next several years.
LCLS accelerates electrons to nearly the speed of light to generate extremely bright beams of X-rays. Those X-rays probe a sample such as a protein or a quantum material, and a detector captures a series of images that reveal the atomic motion of the sample in real time. By stringing together these images, chemists, biologists, and materials scientists can create molecular movies of events like how plants absorb sunlight, or how our drugs help fight disease.
As LCLS gets upgraded, scientists are moving from 120 pulses per second to up to 1 million pulses per second. That will create a 10,000 times brighter X-ray beam that will enable novel studies of systems that could not be studied before. But it will also come with an enormous data challenge: The X-ray laser will produce hundreds to thousands times more data per given time period than before.
To handle this data, a group of scientists led by LCLS Data Systems Division Director Jana Thayer is developing new computational tools, including computer algorithms and ways of connecting to supercomputers. Thayer’s group uses a combination of computing, data analysis and machine learning to determine the patterns in X-ray images and then string together a molecular movie.

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