Let there be light –
Europe’s brightest
light sources


Scientists across Europe are benefiting from easier access to Europe’s best synchrotron and free electron laser facilities thanks to the IA-SFS (Integrating Activity on Synchrotron and Free Electron Laser Science) project.

Synchrotrons and free electron lasers are extremely bright light sources which are used in disciplines as diverse as physics, materials sciences, chemistry, biology, imaging and microfabrication, allowing a wide range of applications including, among many others, the analysis of archaeology and cultural heritage artefacts.

Europe is home to several of the best facilities in the world in this field, and the aim of the IA-SFS project is to link up these important light sources and optimise access to them. The 16 project partners come from 7 EU countries plus Switzerland; 12 of the partners host a synchrotron source and 3 host a free electron laser. The consortium is completed by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), one of the world’s leading molecular biology research institutions and a user of these facilities.

The result is the largest network of free electron lasers and synchrotrons in the world, serving several thousand European scientists, with access to the facilities based solely on merit.


Shining a light on molecular mysteries

Synchrotrons and free electron lasers have a wide range of applications. They can be used to explore the nature of chemical bonds in new compounds, investigate the bonding of molecules to a solid surface and probe the arrangement of atoms in a biological macromolecule. With these facilities, scientists can also obtain three dimensional images of tissue samples and even cut nanoscale patterns and devices for industrial applications.

The knowledge gained through these facilities can be used for anything from understanding diseases and designing drugs to data storage and developing energy efficient technologies.

Synchrotrons and free electron lasers explained

The first step in the process of generating synchrotron light involves firing a stream of charged particles like electrons and accelerating them to within a whisker of the speed of light. They are then injected into a storage ring, where powerful magnets force the speeding electrons to travel in a giant circle. As the particles are deflected by the magnets, they emit light spanning all wavelengths from the infrared to x-rays. This light can be selected by wavelength and channelled into narrow, intense beams which are projected to experimental stations where samples are placed.

Free electron lasers work on a similar principle. Here, a beam of electrons travelling close to the speed of light is forced into a sinusoidal path by a series of magnets. These rapid changes in direction force the electrons to emit photons of light. The result is a powerful laser whose wavelength can be tuned to a wide range of frequencies, ranging from microwaves and infrared radiation, to the visible spectrum, ultraviolet light and x-rays.

Creating a European network of light sources

In a field of technology with such a broad range of applications, it is vital for Europe to streamline its activities and develop a coherent, continent-wide approach in order to avoid duplications, reduce waste and make the best possible use of resources. Only by doing this can Europe stay ahead of international competition.

The IA-SFS project is using a three-pronged approach to tackle these problems. Through networking activities they are reaching out to the next generation of users and stimulating new ideas and collaborations. At the same time, the project is organising joint research activities on new instruments and developing novel radiation sources.

However, the most important strand of the project is its work in facilitating cross-border, transnational access to the synchrotrons and free electron lasers involved in the project. The sole criterion for access to the facilities is scientific merit. This means that scientists based in countries lacking these infrastructures can now access them on equal terms with local scientists, and the benefits these infrastructures bring are no longer restricted to the small number of countries that can afford them, but are spread throughout the whole of Europe.

According to the President of the IA-SFS Council, Professor Giorgio Margaritondo of the Swiss École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), this is one of the project’s greatest achievements.

‘By providing support for transnational access, the project opened up a large number of national facilities to scientists from all over Europe,’ he explains. ‘Almost 2 000 experiments were supported in the first three project years. This boosted the use of the facilities and the return of the corresponding investment – for a very small additional cost.’

Another plus point of this arrangement is that it helps to plug the brain drain. Because scientists can now make use of state-of-the-art light sources in other countries, scientists whose work requires the use of a synchrotron or free electron laser are no longer forced to migrate to develop their research potential. This is particularly important for junior scientists.

Furthermore, by linking up the light sources, IA-SFS has helped to further boost Europe’s position as a world leader in the field, as the project has created a healthy level of competition between the facilities to attract the most prestigious users and the best research proposals. At the same time, the cooperative spirit of the partners ensures that facilities which are oversubscribed can channel users to other member facilities.

Towards an even brighter future

The project partners are keen to carry on their cooperation and push the boundaries of the technology to the limit, so that Europe’s top scientists can continue to have access to the world class facilities Europe has to offer, wherever they may be.