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When going small is ASU's big news

ASU physicist revolutionizing X-ray technology
Compact laser up to 100 times cheaper, smaller than particle accelerators
ASU's new X-ray technology could become a crucial new medical tool
October 14, 2015

Physics and Biodesign professor is shrinking electron-laser technology

Free electron lasers — powerful devices that can peer deep into molecular structure and the ultrafast timescales of chemistry — cost billions to build and are miles long, but an Arizona State University professor is constructing a version that can fit on a tabletop. And it will cost a fraction of the price of its larger peers.

This compact free electron laser will be accessible to millions of scientists, instead of hundreds, advancing countless fields of research and potentially expanding medical uses.         

“There’s almost no limit to what it can do,” said William Graves, associate professor in the university’s Physics Department and Biodesign Institute. “These things are brand new; they’ve never existed before. We think it’s really going to revolutionize X-ray science.”

Free electron lasers, which use a high-power laser to make X-rays with electrons, have been around for five years, but only a few exist. They cost $1 billion to build, they can be miles long, and they cost $100 million annually to operate. Access to them is highly sought after by scientists, with 80 percent of applications rejected.

Graves’ compact version will be about 3 feet long, cost about $10 million to build, operate on a $1 million annual budget, and require three people to run it.

“Not only can we do great science with this, but lots of people can do great science with this,” he said. “It’s like taking a huge synchrotron (particle accelerator) at a national lab and we’re sticking it over in (the Biodesign department). All the things they do with a synchrotron, we can do here.”

An accelerator physicist and a veteran of MIT and Brookhaven National Lab, Graves has worked on the big particle accelerators, which make X-ray light sources, but in the past 10 years has been working on small free electron lasers.

Graves came to ASU from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work on this new generation of imaging technology because, “ASU is giving me the chance to build it.”

Graves came to ASU from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because “Petra Fromme and John Spence at ASU demonstrated they have the vision and resources to make this project successful,” Graves said. Fromme directs the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Applied Structural Discovery and is a professor in ASU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Spence is a Regents' Professor and the Richard Snell Professor of Physics at ASU.

“ASU has stepped up to the plate and funded the first version of it,” Graves said. “We’re building it as a collaboration. We’ll initially run it at MIT, but as soon as our laboratory space is ready here, we’ll bring it here and run it here.”

The laser is being assembled at MIT under ASU direction and will be operated there until the new third Biodesign building is complete at ASU.

Graves sees the compact version being a crucial new tool in medicine because it could be used to notice differences in soft tissue, such as seeing a tumor within a breast.

“It can see things that are just plain invisible to conventional X-rays,” he said. “We’d like to commercialize it. We think there’s a lot of potential. Not every hospital, but every medical center would want one.”

“There’s almost no limit to what it can do."

— William Graves, ASU associate professor

The machine will be capable of looking at the molecular structure of any living system.

“With an X-ray laser, the pulses are so short you can strobe the chemical reaction and make a movie of how molecules move and bind and break their bonds with each other,” Graves said.

“The goal is to make these movies with the X-ray laser.”

It’s more than just science and medicine that could benefit from Graves’ ambitious design.

He recently visited the conservation and research labs at the Louvre in Paris, where art treasures could be analyzed using his compact free electron laser X-ray onsite. This would allow experts to determine authenticity or whether a painting was created on top of another painting.

“We think we can really change X-ray science,” he said.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

ASU paleobotanist shares love of fossil plants on National Fossil Day

October 14, 2015

When you think about fossils, dinosaurs or other ancient animals may come to mind.

But for paleobotanist Kathleen Pigg, plants were always far more interesting. An image of a fossil of a fish Fossilized in limestone, this sunfish was found in the Green River near Kemmerer, Wyoming. It is from the Eocene era and is roughly 50 million years old. Download Full Image

Growing up in Ohio, she spent her days surrounded by plants as she walked through the woods with her mother. Pigg said this nurtured her deep love of plants, but she never had any particular plans to study plant fossils.

“The fossil part kind of came secondarily,” said Pigg, professor with Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences. “Some paleontologists are little kids who loved fossils, but I was a little kid who loved plants.”

Pigg ended up studying plant fossils after a class at Ohio State University led to working in a faculty member’s lab as an undergraduate researcher.

“You know how it is when you’re young and you start doing things in someone’s lab,” Pigg said. “Nowadays everyone has undergraduates in their labs doing projects, but it wasn’t all that common back in the '70s.”

Since that time, Pigg has yet to stop studying ancient plants. Throughout her career, she has focused on a number of different historical eras ranging from 15 million to 500 million years ago.

While paleobotanists often stick to one era, Pigg’s experience across many eras has given her a broad view of how plants have changed throughout history. With that specialty, she focuses on the evolutionary history, biogeographic distribution and the adaptations of many plant groups. By looking at how plants have adapted to different climates and moved around the world, Pigg’s research can help show how modern plants might be affected by global warming.

“The Earth was really warm during the Eocene era, so you had things like palm trees in Canada,” Kathleen said. “The reason that’s scientifically important is because it gives us a lot of information about how these plant groups evolved and moved around the planet.”

Despite never intending to spend her life studying fossils, the appeal of it quickly grew on her.

“There’s nothing better in the world than cracking open a rock and finding something,” Pigg said. “You’re the first person who has seen that fossil in 15 million years. People think archeology is cool, but that’s only thousands of years old. Fossils are millions of years old.”

Pigg has had many opportunities to experience that joy firsthand at one of the fossil floors where she conducts research. At the Stonerose Interpretive Center and Eocene Fossil Site in Republic, Washington, anyone can rent a pickaxe, learn how to find fossils and spend the day scouring the lakebed for samples.

Guests can keep up to three fossils per visit. Onsite staff members examine every sample in case rare or important pieces are dug up.

The important thing, Pigg said, is that such opportunities grow the paleontology community and allow enthusiasts to get hands-on experience. It also helps researchers such as her, to find the important fossils among the thousands of common ones.

Aside from her research, Pigg manages the plant fossils at ASU’s Natural History Collection. Most of the collection was inherited from emeritus professor James Canright. It contains everything from well-preserved wood anatomy to fossilized pollen.

National Fossil Day is set aside for paleontologists across the country to share the importance of studying fossils.

“The thing about a collection is you never quite know why it might be useful,” Pigg said. “People look at the organic material off of leaves that were collected 400 years ago. When someone was collecting pretty flowers in the 1700s, they had no idea what DNA was. They had no idea that anyone would be able to get the DNA out of it and learn something.”

Since the advent of digitization, less active collections are far more accessible than ever before, according to Pigg, making digital scans of the fossils an important initiative.

Still, she said it’s important to have physical fossils and for people to see them — which is why she brought “Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway” to ASU. The art exhibit, created by artist Ray Troll and paleontologist Kirk Johnson, brings together the best of the ASU Natural History Collections fossils and Troll’s fossil-inspired artwork to explore questions about evolution, extinction and early life on Earth.

The exhibit is open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Dec. 15. For more information, visit the School of Life Sciences website.

Jason Krell

Communication and events coordinator, Center for Evolution and Medicine