Reports show benefits of STFC-European collaborations

Two new independent reports commissioned by STFC demonstrate the benefits of collaboration with flagship European research institutions.

The evaluations, conducted by the Technopolis Group, examine UK and Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) involvement in:

  • the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF)
  • the European X-Ray Free-Electron Laser Facility (European XFEL)

Together, they show that through STFC-managed investment in both facilities, UK scientists have led and supported a range of activities with wide reaching benefits.

Longstanding partnerships

ESRF is the world’s brightest X-ray light source, situated in Grenoble, France.

It enables scientists to study the position and motion of atoms, supporting research in fields ranging from biochemistry to cultural heritage.

The UK has been a member of ESRF since it was founded in 1988.

In this time, research at the facility has supported various pioneering studies, including several which contributed to Nobel Prizes.

Legacy of success

This legacy of success has continued in recent years with UK scientists using the facility’s unique capabilities to produce 3D imaging of the effects of COVID-19 on the human lung.

The report on the impact of STFC collaboration with ESRF examines the period between 2011 and 2020 and highlights successes, including:

  • the UK is one of ESRF’s heaviest users
  • over the last decade, UK users have published 3,300 research publications linked to ESRF
  • nearly €16 million of contracts were won by UK suppliers to ESRF between 2015 and 2021

STFC is uniquely poised to benefit from collaborations with ESRF as its capabilities complement those of the UK’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source, with many researchers making use of both facilities.

Recent developments

The European XFEL was commissioned and began operations in 2017.

It produces intense X-ray flashes in underground tunnels which allows scientists to map atomic details of different materials.

The report into STFC investment in the European XFEL examines the period from when the UK became a member of the facility in 2018 to 2021.

Furthering our understanding

The European XFEL has played a critical role in furthering our understanding of diverse topics, such as the molecular processes that take place inside our cells and those that occur deep inside planets.

Impacts of STFC, European XFEL collaborations highlighted in the report include that:

  • the UK is one of European XFEL’s five heaviest users
  • research conducted by UK scientists at the European XFEL has included several initiatives with important real-world applications, for example in energy management, healthcare, and new methods to purify water
  • UK-based suppliers won contracts worth €700,000 with European XFEL, across a wide range of sectors
  • STFC secured two flagship contracts to provide detectors and a laser

Important international research

Overall, the findings of both reports show that the UK’s involvement in these institutions has generated wide ranging benefits beyond their scientific merit including commercial and economic gains and better-informed policy decisions.

You can read both full reports on the STFC website: impact evaluations of ESRF and European XFEL.

Further information

Case studies of STFC and UK research at ESRF and European XFEL include:

Lithium-ion batteries

UK research at ESRF has supported work to enhance the safety of lithium-ion batteries, which are commonly used in rechargeable devices like mobile phones and electric vehicles.

The research aimed to understand the causes of battery failure in order to develop improved safety measures.

The collaboration involved various partners including University College London, University of Oxford, NASA, and ESRF, who utilised ESRF’s world-leading X-ray imaging capabilities.

Over a span of more than five years, the team studied numerous batteries, employing 2D and 3D imaging techniques at high speeds.

The research provided valuable insights into mitigating thermal runaway and understanding battery behaviour at the cell level.

The team plans to expand the study with a larger sample size and explore microscopic changes contributing to widespread battery failure.

The role of ESRF was essential, offering a highly capable synchrotron radiation source that facilitated faster experimentation and the application of novel techniques.

The facility was crucial to the success and efficiency of the research.

The Human Organ Atlas

Working with ESRF, a research project led by University College London helped to develop an innovative methodology called Hierarchical Phase-Contrast Tomography (HiP-CT).

HiP-CT is a method of producing micron resolution 3D images of human organs, revealing cellular level details in whole organs.

The project initially focused on studying the effects of COVID-19 on the human lung.

ESRF’s Extremely Brilliant Source upgrade, with its low-emittance, high-energy light source, played a crucial role. It enabled the imaging of large intact human organs like the heart and brain with the world’s highest ever resolution.

The research team has benefitted from the expertise and new sample treatment facilities available at ESRF. It has contributed to the development of knowledge regarding pre-treating organs for experiments and future soft tissue tomography.

Through funding from the ESRF and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a multinational Human Organ Atlas Hub has now been formed. The hub will provide an open-access dataset imaging our organs in health, disease and as we age.

Antibacterial water treatment

A research group from The University of Sheffield has utilised the Femtosecond X-Ray Experiments (FXE) instrument at European XFEL to investigate the structural changes that occur when copper complexes absorb light.

This research has enhanced their understanding of which copper complexes are most effective for affordable and scalable water treatment.

When copper complexes absorb light, they transition to a higher energy state and can convert oxygen into a highly reactive form that can eliminate bacteria.

The research team examined the molecular-level changes in real time using European XFEL.

Their findings have demonstrated the efficient eradication of bacteria, including MRSA and E. Coli, highlighting the potential of these complexes for antibacterial water treatment.

This research holds promise for addressing the global issue of inadequate access to safe drinking water, as copper is a readily available and cost-effective metal, allowing for widespread implementation of the developed solutions.

Construction of the Large Pixel Detector (LPD)

European XFEL enlisted the expertise of STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) to design and deliver a unique detector tailored to the facility’s requirements.

This collaboration enabled RAL to enhance its internal capabilities and develop the necessary expertise to undertake large-scale projects at other research facilities.

In 2006, RAL’s Detector and Electronics Division embarked on a project to create the LPD, a ground-breaking X-ray detector capable of precise and rapid imaging.

The LPD, installed at European XFEL’s FXE instrument, facilitated the observation of ultrafast reactions and molecular bond formations.

The project drove research and development activities, leading to advancements in hardware, construction, software, and quality assurance processes.

RAL’s successful partnership with European XFEL expanded its capacity to undertake future large-scale projects, benefiting not only European XFEL but also other facilities like the Extreme Photon Application Centre.

Top image:  The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. Credit: The European Synchrotron, Pierre Jayet

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