The thirst for knowledge drives us to explore the world around us. What is our planet made of? What are the processes that sustain life?
How can we explain the properties of matter and develop new materials? Will it one day be possible to conquer viruses, predict natural
catastrophes or eliminate pollution?
Most of these questions cannot be answered without a profound knowledge of the intimate details of the structure of matter.
To help in this quest, scientists have developed ever more
powerful instruments capable of resolving the structure of matter down to the level of atoms and molecules. Synchrotron radiation sources,
which can be compared to “supermicroscopes”, reveal invaluable information in numerous fields
of research. There are about 50 synchrotrons in the world being used by an ever growing number of scientists.
For thousands of years, our knowledge of the world around us was limited to the macroscopic scale, objects we can see with our eyes.
Although the concept of atoms has been around since ancient times, it wasn't until the 20th century that we were finally able to explore
matter at the atomic scale. To “see” atoms, which have dimensions of the
order of a tenth of a nanometre (which is one billionth of a metre, i.e. 10-9 m), you need to use a different form of “light”, one that has a
much shorter wavelength than visible light. This type of “light” is known as X-rays.
Discovered by Röntgen in 1895, X-rays have many well-known applications in medicine. But
they can also be used to reveal important information about the organisation of the atoms that
make up a material.
Synchrotron light as thin as a hair and very intense. Just as laser light is much more intense and concentrated than the beam
of light generated by a flashlight, so an X-ray beam produced by a synchrotron is a thousand billion times brighter than the beam produced
by a hospital X-ray machine.
This opens up completely new fields of applications, making it possible, for example, to
examine samples of microscopic matter, analyse ultra-dilute solutions, or even to observe what
happens during chemical or biological reactions over very short timescales.
Source: ESRF-Brochure "A Light For Science"