In August 2020, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble - an outstanding example of successful European scientific collaboration between 22 countries - marked the opening of the ‘Extremely Brilliant Source’, the first fourth-generation high-energy synchrotron. After a conversion phase of only 20 months and an investment of EUR 150 million, this new infrastructure provides the research community with an extraordinary instrument, enabling applications in previously inaccessible research areas.
The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) is one of the most powerful X-ray radiation facilities in the world. Since it was founded in 1988, the ESRF has advanced synchrotron research around the globe. The ESRF's extremely bright synchrotron light source opens up unique opportunities for research into biomolecules, nanomaterials, catalysts, fossils or valuable cultural assets.
Switzerland also contributes around CHF 5 million per year to the ESRF. This gives Swiss researchers access to the ESRF's beamlines for their respective studies and experiments. SERI is responsible for Switzerland's participation.
Technological and scientific hurdles
By keeping to the budget and completing the Extremely Brilliant Source (EBS) project on schedule, the twenty-two ESRF partner countries have set a new standard in international cooperation. The main component of the EBS is a novel storage ring (Figure 1). A band-like electron beam, two micrometres high and 20 micrometres wide, circulates inside it. This band is one-thirtieth of the width of the previous beam (Figure 2). A new array of over 1,000 innovative magnets in the nearly 850-metre-long circular tunnel directs and focuses the electrons, enabling the generation of synchrotron radiation that is 100 times more brilliant and coherent than before.
The synchrotron light generated in this manner reaches the experimental stations via optimised beamlines, where the samples can be irradiated and images taken with new powerful detectors. The sensitivity and dynamics of nanoscale imaging make it possible to film even macromolecular processes and chemical reactions. High-performance computers are needed to exploit and analyse the enormous surge of data and to store the images and videos. Automated remote-control options and intelligent robots are available at all beamlines and experiment stations.
A new era in the exploration of organ sponges and materials
Precise measurements and observations previously unimaginable have now become a reality with the ESRF-EBS. It is possible to perform a 3D scan of a complete human organ with micrometre resolution, for example, allowing us to better understand the infection process. And the human brain can be mapped at synapse level, thus providing important insights into neurodegenerative diseases. Tracking lithium atoms during a battery cycle makes it possible to increase charging efficiency; observing nitrogen oxides in diesel engines allows researchers to optimise combustion processes.
Thanks to these and other new capabilities, the ESRF-EBS will make a significant contribution towards solving global challenges and understanding the complexity of materials and living matter at the nanometric level. It will help address pressing global issues pertaining to health, environment, energy and new industrial materials.
Fighting the Coronavirus pandemic
At the beginning of April, researchers began using the ESRF-EBS to study the SARS-CoV-2 virus in five projects. They now have a precise image of both the primary virus and mutations of it. Other projects use the structural biology beamlines and a bioimaging beamline to understand the effects of the virus on organs after infection.
The ESRF-EBS synchrotron technique has recently also been used to scan entire human lungs, and thus better detect the damage caused by Covid-19. The entire lung of a 54-year-old man who died from COVID-19 was scanned to look for occluded vessels (Figure 3). The highest zoom setting gives about 100 times higher resolution than clinical computed tomography. These findings greatly improve our understanding of this novel virus and its impact on humans.
What is synchrotron radiation?
All electrically charged particles emit radiation when they are braked or accelerated or when they change their direction of flight. If an electron is no longer allowed to orbit at a ‘leisurely’ pace, but is accelerated to very high speeds, then the electron no longer emits its electromagnetic waves evenly in all directions. Instead, most of the radiation is emitted in the direction of flight. This intense forward radiation is called synchrotron radiation because it was first discovered in 1947 in a particle accelerator of the same type.
Martin Steinacher, SERI
Scientific Advisor, International Research Organisations