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For 2 decades, physicists have strived to miniaturize particle accelerators—the huge machines that serve as atom smashers and x-ray sources. That effort just took a big step, as physicists in China used a small “plasma wakefield accelerator” to power a type of laser called a free-electron laser (FEL). The 12-meter-long FEL isn’t nearly as good as its kilometers-long predecessors. Still, other researchers say the experiment marks a major advance in miniaccelerators.

“A lot of [scientists] will be looking at this like, ‘Yeah, that’s very impressive!’” says Jeroen van Tilborg, a laser-plasma physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who was not involved in the work. Ke Feng, a physicist at the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics (SIOM) who worked on the new FEL, isn’t claiming it’s ready for applications. “Making such devices useful and miniature is always our goal,” Feng says, “but there is still a lot of work to do.”

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