Rebirth of leading European facility promises revolutionary advances in x-ray science

A brilliant new light shines in Grenoble, France, where officials at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility(ESRF) last week announced the reopening of their completely rebuilt x-ray source.

The ring-shaped machine, 844 meters around, generates x-ray beams 100 times brighter than its predecessor and 10 trillion times brighter than medical x-rays. The intense radiation could open up new vistas in x-ray science, such as imaging whole organs in three dimensions while resolving individual cells.

“The light is back at ESRF,” said the lab’s director general, Francesco Sette, at an 8 July online press conference. The reborn synchrotron, dubbed the Extremely Brilliant Source (EBS), will open to general users in late August, but since April, researchers have used its intense beams to study SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, and the disease’s impact on the body. And the EBS is lighting the way for others, as the United States, Japan, and a dozen other countries develop similar machines.

A synchrotron is a ring-shaped accelerator that boosts charged particles such as electrons to high energies and near–light speed. Just as a wet rag flings droplets of water if you twirl it over your head, the circulating electrons radiate photons, including x-rays if the electrons have enough energy. In the 1950s, scientists began to siphon x-rays from electron accelerators built for particle physics experiments. Dedicated x-ray synchrotrons followed in the 1980s, employing magnets called wigglers to shake the electrons as they whirl around, causing them to produce more x-rays. In the 1990s, better synchrotrons debuted with magnets called undulators that shake the circulating electrons more harmoniously and effectively.

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