European Consortium: LEAPS – Light for Research
A new strategic alliance between European accelerator-based 'super-microscopes' has been forged in Brussels last Monday. The League of European Accelerator-based Photon Sources or LEAPS aims to offer a step change in European cooperation, through a common vision of enabling scientific excellence solving global challenges, and boosting European competitiveness and integration. Representatives of 16 organisations from across Europe approved the Consortium Declaration in the presence of Robert-Jan Smits, Director General for Research and Innovation (RTD) at the European Commission.
“Light from particle accelerators plays a crucial role in studies carried out in virtually every area of the natural sciences – from physics, chemistry and biology, through energy, medicine and transport, to studies in cultural history,” says Helmut Dosch, the chairman of DESY’s board of directors, who put forward the idea of LEAPS and is also the chairman of the consortium. “National facilities have so far mostly been developed and operated independently of each other, yet they have much in common, because most of their scientific objectives are very similar.”
The new form of collaboration between the participating institutions is supposed to ensure that the large European research infrastructures can be used even more efficiently in the future and that major scientific and technological challenges can be tackled jointly. This will not only benefit fundamental and applied research, but also industrial research carried out at accelerator-based photon sources.
Such photon sources essentially fall into one of two categories: in so-called synchrotrons, such as DESY’s “brilliant ring” PETRA III, electrons race around in a circle at close to the speed of light, repeatedly passing through undulating magnetic fields. Each time the charged particles are forced to travel around one of the magnetic bends, they emit light which is focused to form a narrow, extremely brilliant beam. This synchrotron radiation can be produced with a range of different wavelengths, from infrared to X-rays, depending on the intended application.
It can be used, for example, to examine the structure of biomolecules, to peer inside solar cells while they are operating, or to reveal paintings hidden beneath other coats of paint.
The principle behind free-electron lasers (FELs) is very similar, except that in this case each bunch of particles only travels down the undulating path a single time. As they do, these high-speed free electrons arrange themselves to oscillate in step with each other so that the radiation they emit is amplified, like in a laser. This produces extremely intense pulses of light, which can also be very brief. These can be used to take snapshots of very rapid processes that occur in the nanocosm, such as filming the precise sequence of events during (bio-) chemical reactions. This year, the world’s best X-ray free-electron laser went online in the shape of the European XFEL, which was largely developed by DESY and its partners.
Both types of radiation source are unique research tools that allow experiments to be conducted which could not be carried out by any other means. “These research light sources serve as catalysts for tackling global challenges, and they are key contributors to innovation and competitiveness, which society at large can benefit from directly,” emphasises Robert Feidenhans’l, the director of European XFEL, who is also a member of the LEAPS consortium. “Beyond this, these facilities promote peace and European integration through close scientific collaboration across national frontiers.”
Sixteen institutions from ten European countries have joined to form LEAPS, serving a community of more than 24,000 research scientists from a wide range of fields. The new consortium is to encourage the exchange of ideas between its member institutions and with users, so as to speed up the development of the technology, and to promote the necessary political environment for the long-term operation of the facilities. Also, it intends to strengthen the collaboration with industrial stakeholders and other scientific institutions, to pursue and advance the strategic development of key technologies in the field, facilitate access to research photon sources, to promote education and to communicate to the general public the importance of research photon sources for society.