Plasma waves generated in the wake of intense, relativistic laser1,2 or particle beams3,4 can accelerate electron bunches to gigaelectronvolt energies in centimetre-scale distances. This allows the realization of compact accelerators with emerging applications ranging from modern light sources such as the free-electron laser to energy frontier lepton colliders. In a plasma wakefield accelerator, such multi-gigavolt-per-metre wakefields can accelerate witness electron bunches that are either externally injected5,6 or captured from the background plasma7,8. Here we demonstrate optically triggered injection9–11 and acceleration of electron bunches, generated in a multi-component hydrogen and helium plasma employing a spatially aligned and synchronized laser pulse. This ‘plasma photocathode’ decouples injection from wake excitation by liberating tunnel-ionized helium electrons directly inside the plasma cavity, where these cold electrons are then rapidly boosted to relativistic velocities. The injection regime can be accessed via optical11 density down-ramp injection12–16 and is an important step towards the generation of electron beams with unprecedented low transverse emittance, high current and 6D-brightness17. This experimental path opens numerous prospects for transformative plasma wakefield accelerator applications based on ultrahigh-brightness beams.
- plasma waves
- electron bunches
- free-electron lasers
- ultrahigh-brightness beams
- transformative plasma wakefield accelerator applications