Rev. Mod. Phys. 88, 015007 – Published 9 March 2016
A new scientific frontier opened in 2009 with the start of operations of the world’s first x-ray free-electron laser (FEL), the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. LCLS provides femtosecond pulses of x rays (270 eV to 11.2 keV) with very high peak brightness to access new domains of ultrafast x-ray science. This article presents the fundamental FEL physics and outlines the LCLS source characteristics along with the experimental challenges, strategies, and instrumentation that accompany this novel type of x-ray source. The main part of the article reviews the scientific achievements since the inception of LCLS in the five primary areas it serves: atomic, molecular, and optical physics; condensed matter physics; matter in extreme conditions; chemistry and soft matter, and biology.