LCLS-II will boost the power of today's most powerful X-ray laser, LCLS, at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. It is scheduled to begin operations in the early 2020s. (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory/YouTube)

Six years ago, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory debuted the most powerful laser the world had ever seen. Now, it wants to make an even brighter one.

The Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) is the current X-ray laser at the Stanford-based laboratory. It is housed in a 2-mile-long linear accelerator tunnel, and shoots off rapid-fire electron beams to capture videos of chemical reactions. These pulses capture snapshots of structures and reactions on an atomic level in quadrillionths of a second.

The prototype of a novel electron source for LCLS-II. It will be located at the future X-ray laser’s front end and produce bunches of electrons to create X-ray pulses that are only quadrillionths of a second long, at rates of up to a million bunches per second. (R. Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab) The prototype of a novel electron source for LCLS-II. It will be located at the future X-ray laser’s front end and produce bunches of electrons to create X-ray pulses that are only quadrillionths of a second long, at rates of up to a million bunches per second. (R. Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

It has been able to record moving images in unprecedented detail, often of some of nature’s most fundamental process, among them looking at how chemical bonds form and break, scrutinizing 3-D images of different cells, witnessing vital interactions in the photosynthesis process and watching how electric charges interact with materials.

Upgrading LCLS will be “transformative” for energy science, the laboratory said in a publication detailing the new studies and opportunities that the LCLS-II could offer. The project consists of adding an extra laser beam “10,000 times brighter, on average, than the first one and fires 8,000 times faster, up to a million pulses per second.”

The Department of Energy approved the $1 billion undertaking and construction began on April 4. The existing laser beam will continue to operate during most of the superconducting accelerator’s construction, except for a 6-month shutdown in 2017 and a year-long shutdown from 2018 to 2019. SLAC hopes to begin operations with its new laser by the early 2020s.