Synchrotrons and Free Electron Lasers are sources of electromagnetic radiation generated by electrons moving almost with the speed of light. This technology is widely used in many scientific disciplines and industry. The IAEA helps Member States carry out research and build scientific and technical skills in this area.

Synchrotron radiation (SR) and Free Electron Laser (FEL) sources consist of broadband electromagnetic radiation of high brightness generated by high-speed electrons moving in well-defined orbits confined by various magnetic structures. FEL sources in particular offer outstanding brightness and coherence of ultra-short light pulses with wavelengths ranging from a millimetre to a few nanometres (such as for X-rays). Both SR and FEL sources have given rise to many remarkable scientific discoveries. Currently, more than 60 synchrotron and 20 FEL light sources are operational worldwide, with others in the construction or planning phase.

The IAEA helps Member States build their competencies in the field of SR applications. It organizes technical meetings and workshops and runs dedicated schools that offer theoretical and hands-on practical knowledge of these technologies. To assist Member States gain access to a SR facility, the Agency teamed up with the Italian company, Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste. At the firm's X-Ray Fluorescence beamline, a joint research facility was established that was designed to present beam parameters needed for high-level measurements in spectroscopy and microscopy. The beamline is fully operational since the beginning of 2015.

Broad use in science and industry

The unique properties of SR, including its high brilliance, wide spectral range and wavelength/energy tunability, provide it with remarkable analytical capabilities for the characterization of materials. Combined with the various modes of photon-matter interactions, SR offers a wide range of techniques and methodologies, including:

  • chemical analysis, such as elemental composition, chemical speciation and coordination site analysis of the absorbing atom, as well as identification of molecular groups and structures; 
  • structural analysis to understand the modifications induced to crystalline of heterogeneous materials  by means of X-ray diffraction, small angle X-ray scattering and X-ray reflectometry;
  • investigation of electronic and magnetic properties of surfaces, thin films and buried interfaces using a variety of techniques such as soft X-ray emission, photoemission electron microscopy, angular resolved photoemission spectroscopy, low energy electron microscopy and X-ray magnetic circular dichroism; and 
  • morphological characterization, which refers to the visualization in two or three dimensions of the very fine details of complex structures by means of micro- and phase-contrast computed tomography. 

These capabilities have allowed Synchrotron Radiation applications to expand in a wide range of scientific disciplines: materials science; energy research; protein crystallography; environmental science; chemistry; life or biosciences; microelectronics; geological sciences including extra-terrestrial matter studies; and paleo-environmental analysis. It is also used widely across the industry, from pharmaceutical and biotechnology to the production of cars, semi-conductors and cosmetics. Lately, energy storage and conversion has joined the list, in the form of micro- and nano-scaled heterogeneous materials such as batteries, fuel cells, photovoltaics and organic semiconductors.

Free Electron Laser sources are utilized to study the properties of condensed matter; nanomaterials; molecular and atomic processes; and biological systems. In particular, femtosecond X-ray pulses generated at FELs are used for single-bunch timing experiments that are able to unlock exotic research capabilities into the ultrafast and high resolution scale of molecular and atomic dynamic processes.

A global list of synchrotron radiation sources can be found on the IAEA's Accelerator Knowledge Portal.


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