Innovative materials, such as composites and alloys that can withstand ageing and extreme conditions, are driving advances in the aerospace, nuclear and numerous other industries. Understanding the behaviour of materials during their formation and use is crucial to allow manufacturers to develop new materials with tailored properties, such as those with reduced environmental impact. Non-destructive synchrotron X-ray techniques offered by the ESRF allow industry scientists to correlate a material’s micro- and nanostructure with its properties.

Complementary to static structure determination, the ESRF allows the study of materials during their synthesis or under realistic working conditions, which helps manufacturers identify and exploit a material’s properties in new ways.

  • Track changes occurring inside materials during formation on the scale of milliseconds.
  • Strain and stress analysis of materials using energy dispersive X-ray diffraction.
  • Conducting damage and failure testing on coatings using X-ray microtomography.




TU Delft together with steel manufacturers


The Twin Towers collapsed in 2001 because the steel that kept them standing couldn´t resist the fire. The changes in temperature modified the microstructure of the steel and it lost its strength, making the towers crumble. Knowing what happens inside steel (the nucleation process) when it is submitted to high temperatures could help find a better composition for this alloy.




3D X-ray diffraction on ID11 has proven a unique technique to track the nucleation process inside steel as it is submitted to temperatures of 1000 C. Scientists came up with a furnace that could be compatible with the beamline and that had temperature control. They found that nucleation, which is a key process in metals, happens quicker than literature had predicted: there are special places, like grain corners or edges in the material where nucleation takes place more easily than other areas. Amongst these corners and edges there are ones that are preferred for nucleation.  Controlling the nucleation means controlling the properties of the material.

Also, the crystals in the steel become coarser at higher temperatures, which decreases the material's strength. Scientists are currently testing the replacement of potentially scarce elements in the alloying process of steel by other elements more widely available.


A better “recipe” for steel using less alloying elements would make the material more fire-resistant, less expensive and easier to recycle whilst maintaining its properties. 

Sharma H., et al, Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/srep30860



Ti-SiC 3D crack growth, p17.jpg

3D crack-tip microscopy shows a crack (purple) growing in a composite material containing silicon carbide fibres.


University of Mancherster and Rolls-Royce


Crack propagation in metallic materials is well understood. But aircraft manufacturers are increasingly turning to more complicated composite materials that are lighter, stronger and can operate at higher temperatures. Lower weight reduces fuel consumption, while higher engine operating temperatures allow aeroengines to be more efficient. The challenge is to understand how cracks propagate in such materials.


Titanium reinforced with silicon carbide fibres. This composite material can operate at higher temperatures than titanium alone, making it a promising candidate for jet engine parts.


Synchrotron X-rays penetrate tens of millimetres into a sample where the behaviour of cracks can be very different - this in contrast to eectron microscopy which only reveals the surface features of micro-cracks. On beamline ID15, scientists can use imaging, to see how cracks grow, and diffraction, which tells them about the local stresses that the cracks grow under.


The ability to monitor cracks under load at high temperatures allows researchers to evaluate the potential of these materials under realistic conditions. It also helps to make realistic estimates

of the lifetime of existing components and to design safer, more crack-resistant materials for the future.

Better knowledge of crack propagation transfers directly to other industries in which failure is unacceptable, notably the nuclear industry.

Proc. R. Soc. A 468 2722.

Acta Materialia 60 958.