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RDT info logoMagazine on European research Special issue - February 2007   

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Title  The era of new light

It was back in 1975 that the idea of building the first third-generation synchrotron in Europe, with the capacity to generate X-rays a thousand billion times more intense than that traditionally used in medicine or crystallography, was conceived.

ESRF synchrotron ring at Grenoble.
ESRF synchrotron ring at Grenoble.
Grenoble, a city famous for science and high technology, was selected in 1988 as the site for the ESRF (European Synchrotron Radiation Facility). A key factor in the decision was the presence in the city, since the 1970s, of the Institut Laue-Langevin, internationally acclaimed for its work in neutron research. Neutron techniques and synchrotron radiation are in fact quite close to, and complement, one another. Eighteen countries are involved in this European collaboration. Of the fifty or so synchrotrons around the world, only two – one in the United States and one in Japan – can rival that built in Grenoble.

5 500 researchers each year

About forty high-performance ‘beamlines’ are currently in service around the great synchrotron ring of the ESRF, all of which are subject to continual improvement. Each beamline specialises in one particular technique or field of research. Essentially, synchrotrons are ‘jacks-of-all-trades’, machines which permit us to study matter in all its forms – solid, liquid or gas. The intensely powerful X-rays emitted by the ESRF ring make it possible to observe microscopic or even nanoscopic samples of matter, to detect highly diluted and yet still harmful pollutants, or to watch chemical reactions progress by the nanosecond, as if in a film.

The European synchrotron, which is operational 24 hours a day, is used each year by 5 500 researchers each year from all over the world and from every kind of scientific discipline. Twice a year, projects prepared by about 600 universities and research centres are chosen by committees of external experts, solely on the criterion of excellence. The teams of scientists selected usually work for an average of three days on the line allotted to them. The work done at the ESRF is reported in more than 1 300 publications each year.

The world of industry has also long since realised the value of synchrotron radiation and businesses regularly assign research projects to the ESRF in such areas as pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, microelectronics or even cosmetics.

"The European synchrotron will increasingly develop its activities to meet the exploratory requirements of the nanosciences," says Bill Stirling, ESRF’s Director-General. "Our objective is to soon be able to provide beams at the nanometre scale. We are going to convert about a third of the lines to prepare ourselves for what will be the science of the coming decades, while preserving and improving the tool used by the scientists of today".

A multicultural breeding ground

Because it is used in the most varied of disciplines, the Grenoble synchrotron brings together physicists, chemists, biologists, physicians and archaeologists – all sharing in new, unpublished experiments, in both basic and applied science, which may very possibly push back the frontiers of knowledge. This multicultural environment encourages a sharing of ideas and experience, reinforced by the presence of many trainees, PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. Every autumn, a day is set aside for young researchers to present their work. There are also many seminars and conferences throughout the year.

The ESRF website is also ideally designed for browsing by members of the general public with an interest in science.

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