The world’s brightest source of X-rays

Imagine a source that produces X-rays 100 billion times brighter than the X-rays used in hospitals. These X-rays, endowed with exceptional properties, are produced at the ESRF, the European Synchrotron, in Grenoble, France, by the high energy electrons that race around the storage ring - a circular tunnel measuring 844 metres in circumference. Each year, the demand to use these X-ray beams increases and thousands of scientists from around the world come to Grenoble to access the 44 highly specialised experimental stations, called “beamlines”, each equipped with state-of-the-art instrumentation, operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The variety of beamlines now available at the ESRF permits numerous other scientific techniques, such as macromolecular crystallography, tomography/CT, powder diffraction and PDF, X-ray fluorescence, stress/strain imaging, XANES/ EXAFS, SAXS/WAXS and infrared microscopy, amongst others. With new techniques being added constantly, synchrotron radiation research continues to blossom. “The synchrotron has evolved from a playground for physicists to something that is useful for every discipline in science,” say ESRF Directors of Research Harald Reichert and Jean Susini. “As a result, it is now an extremely useful multi-purpose scientific tool. We could call it a Swiss army knife for scientists.”

Functioning like a “super-microscope”, due to the brilliance and quality of its X-rays, the ESRF reveals the structure of matter in all its beauty and complexity. It provides unrivalled opportunities for scientists in the exploration of materials and living matter in a very wide variety of fields: chemistry, material physics, archaeology and cultural heritage, structural biology and medical applications, environmental sciences, information science and nanotechnologies.

Observing and decoding the secrets of matter form the basis of humanity’s quest to achieve a better understanding of the origin of nature and to improve the world surrounding us. It is this quest for excellence in studies of the fundamental properties of materials and living matter that motivate the scientists using the ESRF,” says ESRF Director General Francesco Sette. “By providing unique tools for fundamental, applied and industrial investigations, the ESRF contributes to answering the great and new technological, economic, societal and environmental challenges confronting our world.

Aerial view of the ESRF Aerial view of the ESRF Aerial view of the ESRF Aerial view of the ESRF

The ESRF is not only a landmark for science, it is a local landmark too in the "city of the Alps". With a circumference of 844 m, the storage ring is also visible from the three surrounding mountain ranges: the Belledonne, Chartreuse and Vercors. Images credit: ESRF/D. MOREL.


A unique worldwide research facility, a centre of excellence

Inaugurated in 1994 and supported by 22 partner nations, the ESRF is the world’s most powerful synchrotron. Also, its scientific output and its user community are one of the biggest worldwide:

  • 7000 scientists from around the world visit the ESRF every year to conduct experiments in a very wide variety of fields, ranging from chemistry and physics of materials to archaeology and cultural heritage, as well as structural biology and medical applications, environmental science, information technology and nanotechnologies.
  • 5 Nobel prize-winners among the ESRF users
  • A record number of publications
    • More than 25,000 refereed articles from the last two decades
    • Nearly 2,000 publications per year, equivalent to around 5 every day
  • 30% of the public research involves industrial participation

The ESRF is a scientific infrastructure that is unique in the world, producing the most intense synchrotron-generated light. Over the years, the ESRF has become a world reference and complements the other synchrotrons in Europe and in the partner countries,” says Francesco Sette. “Its uniqueness is that it has the highest brightness in the high-energy range of the spectrum.”


ESRF key dates

  • 1975: Idea for a European third-generation synchrotron source
  • 1988: Signing of the agreement among the governments of 12 Member States
  • 1992: First electron beam in the storage ring
  • 1994: Inauguration. User operations began with 15 beamlines
  • 1998: Forty beamlines in operation
  • 2009: Start of the ESRF Upgrade Programme
  • 2012: New design for the storage ring
  • 2015: Start of Phase II of the Upgrade Programme


Preparing the future

Following on from 20 years of success and excellence, the ESRF has embarked upon an ambitious and innovative modernisation project, the Upgrade Programme.

With an investment of 330 million euros, this programme spans the period 2009 to 2022 and is implemented in two phases: Phase I (2009-2015), and Phase II (2015-2022). With the Upgrade Programme, the ESRF is consolidating its pioneering role and world leadership by paving the way to a new generation of synchrotron light sources that will produce more intense, coherent and stable X-ray beams.

The highlight and major technological challenge of the Upgrade Programme Phase II is the creation of a new ultra-bright synchrotron source, deeply rooted in the existing infrastructure, with performances 100 times superior to present day synchrotrons. In an increasingly competitive scientific environment, the construction of this new lightsource is a strategic project for the future of the ESRF, opening new perspectives for X-ray science.” Pantaleo Raimondi, Director of Accelerator & Source, Harald Reichert and Jean Susini, Research Directors.

The Upgrade Programme Phase II is a new challenge taken up together by the 21 partner nations of the ESRF. With this innovative modernisation project, the ESRF is preparing for the future by constructing the first of a new generation of synchrotrons. It will contribute to answering the great technological, economic, societal and environmental challenges confronting our world. This challenge is possible thanks to the support of the scientific community and the unique concentration of skills and expertise of the ESRF staff.” Francesco Sette, Director General of the ESRF.

Overview of the ESRF Upgrade


22 partners: a model of international cooperation

13 Member States

  • 27.5% France
  • 24% Germany
  • 13.2% Italy
  • 10.5% United Kingdom
  • 6% Russia
  • 5.8% Benesync (Belgium, The Netherlands)
  • 5% Nordsync (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden)
  • 4% Spain
  • 4% Switzerland


9 Associate countries

  • 1.5% Israel
  • 1.3% Austria
  • 1.05% Centralsync (Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia)
  • 1% Poland
  • 1% Portugal
  • 0.66% India
  • 0.3% South Africa


How a synchrotron works

SynchrotronThe X-rays in a synchrotron are generated by electrons travelling at 99.9999% of the speed of light, inside a long, circular tube in near-perfect vacuum. At the ESRF, these electrons are first accelerated by a 16 metre-long linear accelerator (linac) before entering a small, racetrack shaped booster accelerator. Once they have reached their final speed (at an energy level of 6 billion electron volts, or 6 GeV), these high-energy electrons are injected into the vacuum tube of the 844 metre-long storage ring. Here they are guided on their orbital path by magnets. In between these magnets, the electrons pass through insertion devices, also called undulators. During each passage, the electrons release bursts of intense X-rays, along with electromagnetic radiation with other wavelengths, from infrared light to gamma-rays. These X-ray bursts are projected in the forward direction, like a laser beam as thin as a human hair (0.1 mm diametre).

The synchrotron X-ray beam leaves the main storage ring at a point a few metres after the undulator. Undulators are placed at 30 positions around the storage ring.

Upon leaving the storage ring, the X-rays enter one of 44 beamlines, or experimental research stations, each specialised in a technique or area of research. It is the quality of these beamlines and of the scientists operating them that has given the ESRF its reputation for excellence.


Experimental hall and beamlines post upgrade

Plan of the experimental hall in 2015 following completion of phase I of the upgrade.