Atomic jet – the first lens for extreme-ultraviolet light developed

Scientists from the Max Born Institute (MBI) have developed the first refractive lens that focuses extreme ultraviolet beams. Instead of using a glass lens, which is non-transparent in the extreme-ultraviolet region, the researchers have demonstrated a lens that is formed by a jet of atoms. The results, which provide novel opportunities for the imaging of biological samples on the shortest timescales, were published in Nature.

A tree trunk partly submerged in water appears to be bent. Since hundreds of years people know that this is caused by refraction, i.e. the light changes its direction when traveling from one medium (water) to another (air) at an angle. Refraction is also the underlying physical principle behind lenses which play an indispensable role in everyday life: They are a part of the human eye, they are used as glasses, contact lenses, as camera objectives and for controlling laser beams.

Following the discovery of new regions of the electromagnetic spectrum such as ultraviolet (UV) and X-ray radiation, refractive lenses were developed that are specifically adapted to these spectral regions. Electromagnetic radiation in the extreme-ultraviolet (XUV) region is, however, somewhat special. It occupies the wavelength range between the UV and X-ray domains, but unlike the two latter types of radiation, it can only travel in vacuum or strongly rarefied gases. Nowadays XUV beams are widely used in semiconductor lithography as well as in fundamental research to understand and control the structure and dynamics of matter. They enable the generation of the shortest human made light pulses with attosecond durations (an attosecond is one billionth of a billionth of a second). However, in spite of the large number of XUV sources and applications, no XUV lenses have existed up to now. The reason is that XUV radiation is strongly absorbed by any solid or liquid material and simply cannot pass through conventional lenses.

In order to focus XUV beams, a team of MBI researchers have taken a different approach: They replaced a glass lens with that formed by a jet of atoms of a noble gas, helium (see Fig. 1). This lens benefits from the high transmission of helium in the XUV spectral range and at the same time can be precisely controlled by changing the density of the gas in the jet. This is important in order to tune the focal length and minimize the spot sizes of the focused XUV beams.

In comparison to curved mirrors that are often used to focus XUV radiation, these gaseous refractive lenses have a number of advantages: A ‘new’ lens is constantly generated through the flow of atoms in the jet, meaning that problems with damages are avoided. Furthermore, a gas lens results in virtually no loss of XUV radiation compared to a typical mirror. “This is a major improvement, because the generation of XUV beams is complex and often very expensive,” Dr. Bernd Schütte, MBI scientist and corresponding author of the publication, explains.

In the work the researchers have further demonstrated that an atomic jet can act as a prism breaking the XUV radiation into its constituent spectral components (see Fig. 2). This can be compared to the observation of a rainbow, resulting from the breaking of the Sun light into its spectral colors by water droplets, except that the ‘colors’ of the XUV light are not visible to a human eye.

The development of the gas-phase lenses and prisms in the XUV region makes it possible to transfer optical techniques that are based on refraction and that are widely used in the visible and infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum, to the XUV domain. Gas lenses could e.g. be exploited to develop an XUV microscope or to focus XUV beams to nanometer spot sizes. This may be applied in the future, for instance, to observe structural changes of biomolecules on the shortest timescales.

Fig. 1: Focusing of an XUV beam by a jet of atoms that is used as a lens.

Fig. 2: Invisible rainbow that is generated by a jet of helium atoms. Light with ‘colors’ close to resonances of helium are either deflected upwards or downwards.

Original publication:
“Extreme-ultraviolet refractive optics

Lorenz Drescher, Oleg Kornilov, Tobias Witting, Geert Reitsma, Nils Monserud, Arnaud Rouzée, Jochen Mikosch, Marc Vrakking & Bernd Schütte



Slow, but efficient: Low-energy electron emission from intense laser cluster interactions

When a nanoscale particle is exposed to an intense laser pulse, it transforms into a nanoplasma that expands extremely fast, and several phenomena occur that are both fascinating and important for applications. Examples are the generation of energetic electrons, ions and neutral atoms, the efficient production of X-ray radiation as well as nuclear fusion. While these observations are comparably well understood, another observation, namely the generation of highly charged ions, has so far posed a riddle to researchers. The reason is that models predicted very efficient recombination of electrons and ions in the nanoplasma, thereby drastically reducing the charges of the ions.

In a paper that was published in the current issue of Physical Review Letters, a team of researchers from the Imperial College London, the University of Rostock, the Max-Born-Institute, the University of Heidelberg and ELI-ALPS have now helped to solve this riddle. Tiny clusters consisting of a few thousand atoms were exposed to ultrashort, intense laser pulses. The researchers found that the vast majority of the emitted electrons were very slow (see Fig. 1). Moreover, it turned out that these low-energy electrons were emitted with a delay compared to the energetic electrons.

Lead scientist Dr. Bernd Schütte, who performed the experiments at Imperial College in the framework of a research fellowship and who now works at the Max-Born-Institute, says: “Many factors including the Earth’s magnetic field influence the movement of slow electrons, making their detection very difficult and explaining why they have not been observed earlier. Our observations were independent from the specific cluster and laser parameters used, and they help us to understand the complex processes evolving on the nanoscale.”

In order to understand the experimental observations, researchers around Professor Thomas Fennel from the University of Rostock and the Max-Born-Institute simulated the interaction of the intense laser pulse with the cluster. “Our atomistic simulations showed that the slow electrons result from a two-step process, where the second step relies on a final kick that has so far escaped the researchers’ attention”, explains Fennel. First, the intense laser pulse detaches electrons from individual atoms. These electrons remain trapped in the cluster as they are strongly attracted by the ions. When this attraction diminishes as the particles move farther away from each other during cluster expansion, the scene is set for the important second step. Therein, weakly bound electrons collide with a highly excited ion and thus get a final kick that allows them to escape from the cluster. As such correlated processes are quite difficult to model, the computing resources from the North-German Supercomputing Alliance (HLRN) were essential to solve the puzzle.

The researchers found the emission of slow electrons to be a very efficient process, enabling a large number of slow electrons to escape from the cluster. As a consequence, it becomes much harder for highly charged ions to find partner electrons that they can recombine with, and many of them indeed remain in high charge states. The discovery of the so-called low-energy electron structure can thus help to explain the observation of highly charged ions from intense laser cluster interactions. These findings might be important as low-energy electrons are implicated as playing a major role in radiation damage of biomolecules – of which the clusters are a model.

Senior author Professor Jon Marangos, from the Department of Physics at Imperial, says: “Since the mid-1990’s we have worked on the energetic emission of particles (electrons and highly charged ions) from laser-irradiated atomic clusters. What is surprising is that until now the much lower energy delayed electron emission has been overlooked. It turns out that this is a very strong feature, accounting for the majority of emitted electrons. As such, it may play a big role when condensed matter or large molecules of any kind interact with a high intensity laser pulse.”

Fig. 1: The electron kinetic energy spectrum from argon clusters interacting with intense laser pulses is dominated by slow electrons (orange area). The inset shows the same spectrum on a logarithmic scale, indicating the slow electrons (indicated by the red curve) and the fast electrons (indicated by the green curve).




Fig. 2: Atomistic simulation of the laser-induced cluster explosion. Credit: Thomas Fennel





Original publication:

Physical Review Letters 121, 063202 (2018), doi:

Low-energy electron emission in the strong-field ionization of rare gas clusters”

Bernd Schütte, Christian Peltz, Dane R. Austin, Christian Strüber, Peng Ye, Arnaud Rouzée, Marc J. J. Vrakking, Nikolay Golubev, Alexander I. Kuleff, Thomas Fennel and Jon P. Marangos

Auger decay following near-infrared ionization of clusters

An inner-shell vacancy in an atom can decay very efficiently via the emission of an Auger electron. Thus far, Auger decay has been observed in atoms, molecules and clusters following the ionization or excitation by light with high photon energies in the extreme-ultraviolet and X-ray regime. Surprisingly, we have discovered Auger decay after the interaction of methane clusters with intense near-infrared laser pulses, even though the photon energy is not sufficient to directly generate an inner-shell vacancy. However, due to very efficient ionization avalanching in clusters, electrons from outer as well as inner shells are removed from their atoms during the laser pulse, and a nanoscale plasma is formed. Subsequent recombination of electrons to outer shells of ions and to high-lying Rydberg orbitals then results in a population inversion of the cluster atoms. By observing a clear peak in the electron spectrum, evidence was provided for the first time that Auger decay is one of the relaxation channels of the highly excited system. In the future, the observed population inversion could be exploited for the development of a table-top X-ray laser.

Link to publication

Invisible laser pulses push electrons in a quantum swing

Unlike natural light sources such as the sun, lasers have special coherence properties, resulting e.g. in the intriguing observation of interference, where the overlap of two lasers can lead to darkness. The coherence of lasers can also be used to push electrons in a quantum swing inside an atom, meaning that electrons oscillate between two quantum states that lie on different energy levels. Such quantum swings are known as Rabi oscillations and have been observed with low-frequency lasers up to the ultraviolet spectral range. In this paper, we show that Rabi oscillations can be driven in an argon atom by an intense laser pulse in the extreme-ultraviolet spectral range, which is invisible for the human eye. By using a second laser pulse, the ultrafast oscillation of electrons between the ground state (the lowest energy level) and an excited state (at a higher energy level) is traced directly in the time domain, showing that it takes place within tens of femtoseconds (corresponding to 10^-14 seconds). Our results pave the way towards multi-photon coherent control techniques in the extreme-ultraviolet range, allowing extension to situations where interactions between electrons play a role, or more complex systems including molecules.

Link to publication

Fast electrons at long wavelengths

Efficient electron acceleration was observed in clusters induced by a laser field at 1.8 μm that consisted of only two optical cycles. In this regime that is dominated by electronic rather than nuclear dynamics, clear signatures of direct electron emission were observed as well as rescattering of electrons that gain additional kinetic energy during laser-driven collisions with ions and with the cluster potential. The results, which were obtained at the Imperial College London, promise efficient particle acceleration in clusters at mid-infrared and terahertz wavelengths.

Link to publication

Bernd Schütte receives ISUILS award

Bernd Schütte has received the 7th ISUILS Award for Young Researchers. This prize is sponsored by the Japan Intense Light Field Science Society and was awarded at the 15th International Symposium on Ultrafast Intense Laser Science, currently taking place in Cassis in the South of France. Bernd Schütte has received this award for his work on ultrafast cluster dynamics during the past few years.

Workshop impressions

The second workshop on “Ultrafast Cluster Dynamics” took place from August 23-24 at the Max-Born-Institut, and was organized together with the TU Berlin. Our 40 guests presented 14 exciting posters and 9 talks, which resulted in many lively discussions. A lot of new fascinating results have been obtained since the last workshop that took place 2 years ago in Rostock. We are already looking forward to the next edition of this workshop taking place in Freiburg in 2 years!