Delivered on time and on budget, the upgraded European Synchrotron Radiation Facility’s Extremely Brilliant Source (ESRF-EBS) located in Grenoble, France, will herald a new era for X-ray science, boasting a performance quality 100 times that of its previous generation. Opened early for business to Covid-19 research, other scientists from the 22 funding countries of the ESRF-EBS will be allocated “beam time” from August 25, 2020, to probe the micro and macro structures of our world.
An idea proposed and executed in under eight years, the facility will house the most intense synchrotron-generated light source in the world. In fact, its pioneering design is already being replicated by several other upgrade projects across the globe.
“A dream machine is becoming a reality,” Pantaleo Raimondi, inventor of the ESRF-EBS concept, said in a statement. “In 2013, EBS was still a concept imagined on paper. Today, thanks to the expertise and enthusiasm of the ESRF teams, we are preparing to restart the scientific programme. I am excited to see the science that will result!”
Synchrotrons accelerate electrons close to the speed of light, guiding their circular path with an array of magnets. At these extraordinary speeds, the electrons emit energy at X-ray wavelengths, which are then directed down “beamlines” towards experiment hubs. The EBS has 27 beamlines of extremely powerful X-ray beams whose varying interactions with matter can be used to uncover the microscopic details of structures from the cells of Egyptian mummy’s to the growth lines in T-Rex teeth.
To make their upgrade, the team shut down their third-generation synchrotron for 20 months from December 2018. In this time, they disconnected 200 kilometers (124 miles) of cables and removed 1,720 tonnes (1,896 US tons) of equipment, before installing twice the number of magnets in the same square footage, precisely aligned to within a width of a human hair. As Raimondi described it in a press conference, it was like “putting a Ferrari engine into an old car.” With this extra oomph, the X-ray beam width produced by the accelerated electrons could be made 30 times smaller, which Raimondi likened to the transition of a “flash light to a laser pointer.”
A smaller beam means greater resolution, and there are already projects in the pipeline to utilize this power. In the field of human biology, researchers are hoping to use the X-ray beam to image every organ in the body to build the first 3D digital organ atlas. Elsewhere, scientists will probe the interiors of batteries to try to improve their charging abilities and even help to find the best ways to preserve paintings and artifacts.
Having reached the necessary operation parameters earlier this year, the EBS has already been made available for priority research on Covid-19. To contribute to the development of vaccines and antivirals, the beam is being used to understand the functions and interactions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus with the host cell. Scaling up a few orders of magnitude, researchers are also using the beams' 3D imaging capability to look at how the coronavirus affects the lungs during the infection phase.
With the results from these experiments expected in a few months, it seems the future is already bright for the new generation of synchrotron.