Espace presseThema

In Grenoble, Neutrons and X-Rays Probe Matter

Two Large-Scale European Facilities, the ESRF and the ILL, for Detailed Analysis of the Structure of Matter

Aerial view of Grenoble's research polygon showing the ESRF ring and the ILL reactor, where the Drac River joins the Isère.

Until the 20th century we had largely a visual grasp of our physical surroundings, knowing only of an object what could be seen by the naked eye or with an optical microscope. Today, the molecular and atomic structure of matter can be probed with radiations whose wavelength is shorter than that of visible light: X-rays and neutrons produced respectively by synchrotron radiation sources and high-flux reactors. The two largest European facilities in this field are both located within Grenoble's research polygon.

The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) – financed by 17 European nations – is one of the most powerful sources of synchrotron radiation in the world. Research carried out at the ESRF covers a range of fields from physics, geophysics, and chemistry to biology, biomedicine and the environment. Emerging fields studied at the Facility include molecular biology, new materials, and nanosciences. Using its high brilliance beam, scientists are able to study micrometric samples of matter and to test for substances in high dilutions. The beam's time structure makes it possible to follow chemical or biological reactions lasting only a picosecond. Industrial research makes use of the ESRF for studying polymers, cosmetics, biomaterials, food and pharmaceutical products.

The Laue-Langevin Institute (ILL) enjoys world leadership in neutron science and techniques, and its neutron source is the most intense in the world. The Institute is financed by three founding countries (Germany, France, and the UK) and six partner countries (Austria, Czech Republic, Italy, Russia, Spain, and Switzerland). Research carried out at the ILL mainly concerns the physics of fundamental interactions, nuclear physics, condensed matter physics, chemistry, and the life sciences. Of particularly high interest are studies of magnetism,  materials science, metallurgy, soft matter and polymers. The weak energy of the beams produced makes the ILL neutron source an indispensable tool for studying the dynamics of these various systems and their low-energy excitation properties. More penetrating than X -rays, neutrons are capable of probing materials in their volume, and since they are more sensitive to lighter elements they can, for example, locate hydrogen in the midst of organic matter. Not resting on its laurels, the ILL has launched a renewal program, Millenium, which is expected to result in a tenfold increase in the efficiency of its instrumentation.

Since they perform complementary tasks, these large European facilities cooperate actively with each other. Both the ESRF and the ILL signed an agreement on November 15, 2002 establishing a partnership with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and Grenoble's Institute for Structural Biology (IBS) whose objective is to study the structure of proteins for their biomedical interest. On November 26, 2002, the two facilities founded a joint laboratory for studying materials in the context of engineering science (FaME38, Facility for Materials Engineering).




Jean-Paul Pouget
CNRS representative to the governing boards of the ESRF and the ILL
Laboratoire de physique des solides
CNRS-Université Paris XI

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