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Synchrotrons for corona research

Synchrotron light sources were originally built to study particles. Today, they are even used in the fight against COVID-19. The projects are as diverse as the fields of the synchrotron users, who come from universities, research institutions and companies like BioNTech.


To fight COVID-19, we need vaccines and medicine, and to develop these, we need to know the SARS-CoV-2 virus in detail. The virus cannot be seen with a normal light microscope, since it is smaller than the wavelength of visible light.  Synchrotrons can produce the short-wave photons or X-rays required. It is of great advantage that we have an outstanding research infrastructure established in the last decades, both in Germany and abroad with German participation. Synchrotron light source facilities include PETRA III and FLASH at the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, BESSY II at the Helmholtz Centre Berlin (HZB), European XFEL near Hamburg or ESRF in Grenoble, France. They allow the virus to be imaged with atomic precision.

The heart of a synchrotron is a particle accelerator which accelerates electrons to almost the speed of light. Special magnets deflect the electrons from their trajectory in the synchrotron as they are slowed down, they emit energy in the form of light. These photons, which cover a wide range from infrared to X-ray, are used to study chemical processes, cells and molecules, but also, for example, the spread of aerosol particles or the extent of damage to the lung tissue of COVID patients.

Shortly after the genome of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV2 was published in early 2020, the first studies started at German synchrotron radiation sources. While synchrotron measurement time normally has to be applied for several months in advance, the synchrotron radiation sources set up a fast-track procedure for coronavirus researchers. They maintained operation for these projects even during the lockdown.  This allowed a wide variety of projects to be conducted, for example:

The KFS is an elected representation of the more than 4000 users of synchrotron radiation sources in Germany and at international institutions with German participation.

For further information on the various projects, please contact:

KFS press office: Dr. Karin Griewatsch,

Oder an:

HZB press office: Dr. Antonia Rötger;; Tel: 0049 30 8062-43733

see also:

DESY press office: Dr. Thomas Zoufal, ; Tel.: 49 40 8998-9-1666

see also:

ESRF press office: Delphine Chenevier, ; Tel.: 33 4 76 88 26 04

see also:

European XFEL press office: Dr. Bernd Ebeling, ; Tel: 49 40 8998-6921

see also:

Information on corona research in the Helmholtz Association:


The coronavirus is studied at synchrotrons like BESSY II at HZB in Berlin. Credit: HZB/Wikimedia Commons

Click on the image for high resolution (2536 x 1687 px)

ESRF scientist Gianluca Santoni, who works on macromolecular crystallography, checks equipment at beamline ID23-1. Credit: ESRF/C. Argoud

Click on the image for high resolution (1021 x 664 px)

DESY researcher Wiebke Ewert shows on a so-called electron density map where a drug candidate (green) binds to the main protease of the corona virus (blue). Credit: DESY/Christian Schmid

Click on the image for high resolution (5197 x 3466 px)