New insight into high-temperature superconductors

Researchers have found evidence for an acoustic plasmon or “sound wave”, which has been predicted for layered systems and suggested to play a role in mediating high temperature superconductivity.

When electrical current propagates through a conducting material, energy dissipates due to the conductor’s electrical resistance. In a superconductor, however, the resistance can vanish completely if the material is cooled to extremely low temperatures. Such dissipationless supercurrent would be highly desirable for a plethora of electronic and technological applications, and has spawn decades of intense research dedicated to find materials with superconducting properties at elevated temperatures.

While all superconducting materials reported until the 1980’s had to be cooled below 30 K, the game changed in 1986, when the first superconductors based on copper oxide materials were discovered. These so-called high-temperature superconductors are composed of stacked layers of copper-oxygen planes and some show zero electrical resistance well above 100 K. By understanding the mechanisms mediating superconductivity in the copper oxides, the scientific community hopes to become able to devise novel materials that show zero resistance even at room temperature. However, a comprehensive understanding of these mechanisms has yet remained elusive. Nonetheless, superconductors are used already today in some technological applications, such as magnetic resonance imaging devices in the field of medicine. Future applications of room temperature superconductors could revolutionize the fields of electrical power storage and transmission, and enable rapid public transport by magnetically levitated trains.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Overview of the beamline ID32 at the ESRF.
Credits: P. Jayet

The ESRF CryoEM excels in its first year

In November 2017, a Titan Krios cryo-electron microscope (cryo-EM) was inaugurated at the ESRF, the European Synchrotron, France. Data collected on this cryo-EM features in a Nature publication describing the activation cycle of a serotonin receptor, which is targeted by medication against chemotherapy- and radiotherapy-induced nausea.

“This publication is a true reward for us: the first one in less than a year from inauguration and we hope this kind of rewards will grow in number”, explains Isai Kandiah, ESRF scientist who runs the facility. “It shows the revolution that cryo-EM is leading in structural biology”, she adds. Thanks to cryo-EM, researchers can now freeze biomolecules, including membrane proteins of high medical importance, in several different conformations in action and visualise each of these to atomic resolution. Cryo-EM thus allows researchers to produce snapshots revealing the dynamics of proteins when they interact with other molecules, information that is crucial both for a basic understanding of life’s chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals. The user programme of the cryo-electron microscope at the ESRF is run jointly with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), the Institut de Biologie Structurale (IBS) and the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL).

The research in Nature is a result of an international collaboration of scientists from the Institute of Structural biology (IBS-mixed research unit CEA-CNRS-University Grenoble Alps), CEA, CNRS, the Institut Pasteur, the University of Lorraine (France), the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), the University of Illinois (US) and the biotech company Theranyx. The focus of the paper, featuring data from the ESRF cryo-EM, is the activation cycle of the 5-HT3 receptor, belonging to the family of serotonin receptors. These receptors are well-known because they influence various biological and neurological processes such as anxiety, appetite, mood, nausea, sleep and thermoregulation, among others. Unlike the other serotonin receptors, which are G protein-coupled receptors, 5-HT3 is a neurotransmitter-gated ion channel and changes its conformation during activation. It is present in the brain, as well as in the enteric nervous system, the peripheral nervous system that drives the digestive tract.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: A close-up view of the Cryo-EM at the ESRF.
Credit: S. Candé.

The coolest high-energy synchrotron experiment

A French team of researchers has created and tested a cryostat where scientists can carry out the coldest experiments in the high-energy range in a synchrotron.

A photocopy of a drawing lies on the table of the control cabin of beamline ID12. It shows a cryostat and its heart: a spring-like metal tube and other components. Next to the drawing, lots of scribbles in different colours and on different dates, proof that this creation has been many years in the making. Steps away from the table, the real thing makes its appearance in the experimental hutch. Its majestic presence gives the beamline a new touch. It is the Très Basses Temperatures for miliKelvin (TBT-mK) cryostat.
Philippe Sainctavit, from the Institut de minéralogie, de physique des matériaux et de cosmochimie, together with Jean-Paul Kappler and Loïc Joly, from the Institut de Physique et Chimie des Matériaux de Strasbourg and synchrotron SOLEIL, are the fathers of this invention. “We started working on this project 20 years ago, and this is the third version of the machine”, explains Kappler. The team has installed the machine on ID12 for their experiments in magnetism. “Because this is quite a particular piece of equipment, we needed a very strong understanding with the beamline staff. Thanks to the fact that we were all in the same wavelength, the installation, which lasted 5 weeks spread throughout the year, went very smoothly. We could not have done this without the strong collaboration with the ID12 staff, namely Andrei Rogalev, Fabrice Wilhelm and Pascal Voisin”, explains Sainctavit.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Molluscs use thermodynamics to create complex morphologies with exceptional properties

An international team has found how some molluscs create their complex structures.

Their work provides new tools for novel bioinspired and biomimetic bottom-up material design.
Nature serves as a source of inspiration for scientists and engineers thanks to the complex material architectures that make up some living organisms. These materials carry out essential functions, ranging from structural support and mechanical strength, to optical, magnetic or sensing capabilities. One example of this are molluscan shells, made of mineralized tissues organised in mineral-organic hierarchical functional architectures.

Molluscs appeared more than 500 million years ago, and they have developed hard and stiff mineralised outer shells for structural support and protection against predation. Their shells consist of mineral-organic composite structures made of calcium carbonates, mostly calcite and aragonite. The different shells exhibit a large variety of intricate three-dimensional assemblies with superior mechanical properties.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

How did humans live 5000 years ago?

Researchers from the Cyprus Institute, in collaboration with the Iranian Center of Archaeological Research, have worked around the clock for a week on ID16A to discover more about the lifestyle of our ancestors.

How did people live 5000 years ago? What did they eat? What can we learn of their health? Were they exposed to contaminants? To answer these questions with various techniques researchers first need to understand more about the preservation state of ancient human hair. In order to do this, a team from Cyprus Institute is  scanning hair remains found within burials at the ancient site of Shahr-I-Sokhta, in Iran.
In this urban settlement, at a crossroads of important ancient trade routes that later became part of the Silk Road, there was busy commercial and manufacturing activity around metal and precious materials as evidenced by the  artifacts found onsite during archaeological excavations. Archaeologists have also found remains of the inhabitants of the city dating to the 3rd millennium BC, and their state of preservation is remarkable. “The climate in this area is very arid and hot, and this has led to preservation of body tissues not often found with human skeletons, including hair”, explains Kirsi Lorentz, assistant professor at the Cyprus Institute.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron (ESRF) website

Image: Aerial view of the Shahr-I-Sokhta site, in Iran.
Credit: Media Rahmani

ESRF-EBS confirmed as landmark in ESFRI roadmap

On 11 September 2018, in Vienna, the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) presented the ESFRI Roadmap 2018 on Large Scale Research Infrastructures.

The ESRF-Extremely Brilliant Source (ESRF-EBS) is confirmed as a major landmark project. ESRF-EBS is a 150-million euro facility upgrade, over the period 2015-2022. With the construction of a brand-new storage ring, ESRF-EBS will be the world’s first high-energy fourth-generation synchrotron light source.

This year, the ESRF celebrates its 30th anniversary: 30 years of scientific discoveries, 30 years of innovation. In 1988, the ESRF made history as the world’s first third-generation synchrotron light source, producing X-rays 100 billion times brighter than the X-rays used in hospitals and providing unrivalled opportunities for scientists in the exploration of materials and living matter. For 30 years, the ESRF has aligned success after success, breaking records for its scientific output with over 30 000 publications and four Nobel prize laureates, as well as for the brilliance and stability of its X-ray beams. Today, the ESRF continues to lead the way with the Extremely Brilliant Source, a 150M€ project, funded by the 22 partner countries of the ESRF.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron (ESRF) website

Just like lego – studying flexible protein for drug delivery

Researchers from the Sapienza University of Rome and its spin-off company MoLiRom (Italy) are spending the weekend at the ESRF to study a protein that could potentially transport anticancer drugs.

Ferritin is a large spherical protein (20 times bigger than haemoglobin) that stores iron within its cavity in every organism. Just like a lego playset, Ferritin assembles and disassembles. It is also naturally targeted to cancer cells. These are the reasons why Ferritin is a great candidate as a drug-transport protein to fight cancer. An international team of scientists from “Sapienza” University of Rome and the SME MoLiRom (Italy) came to the ESRF to explore a special kind of ferritin that shows promising properties. “This is an archaebacterial ferritin that have transformed into a humanised ferritin to try to tackle cancer cells”, explains Matilde Trabuco, a scientist at the Italian SME MoLiRom.

The mechanism looks simple enough: “Ferritin has a natural attraction to cancer cells. If we encapsulate anti-cancer drugs inside it, it will act as a Trojan horse to go inside cells, then it will open up and deliver the drug”.

Ferritins have been widely used as scaffolds for drug-delivery and diagnostics due to their characteristic cage-like structure. Most ferritins are stable and disassemble only by a harsh pH jump that greatly limits the type of possible cargo. The humanised ferritin was engineered to combine assembly at milder conditions with specific targeting of human cancer cells.

 

>Read more on the European Synchrotron Website

 

Research gives clues to CO2 trapping underground

CO2 is an environmentally important gas that plays a crucial role in climate change.

It is a compound that is also present in the depth of the Earth but very little information about it is available. What happens to CO2 in the Earth’s mantle? Could it be eventually hosted underground? A new publication in Nature Communications unveils some key findings.

Carbon dioxide is a widespread simple molecule in the Universe. In spite of its simplicity, it has a very complex phase diagram, forming both amorphous and crystalline phases above the pressure of 40 GPa. In the depths of the Earth, CO2 does not appear as we know it in everyday life. Instead of being a gas consisting of molecules, it has a polymeric solid form that structurally resembles quartz (a main mineral of sand) due to the pressure it sustains, which is a million times bigger than that at the surface of the Earth.

Researchers have been long studying what happens to carbonates at high temperature and high pressure, the same conditions as deep inside the Earth. Until now, the majority of experiments had shown that CO2 decomposes, with the formation of diamond and oxygen. These studies were all focused on CO2 at the upper mantle, with a 70 GPa of pressure and 1800-2800 Kelvin of temperature.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron (ESRF) website

Picture: Mohamed Mezouar, scientist in charge of ID27, on the beamline.
Credit: S. Candé. 

Scientists unravel mechanism for body odour in armpits

British researchers from the University of York and the University of Oxford have shown the mechanism that leads to body odour in armpits by studying the molecular process at the ESRF and other lightsources.

Stepping into a cramped bus on a hot summer day can sometimes translate into having to hold your breath and a very unpleasant experience. Sweat production increases in hot weather, and, with it, body odour. Despite much research and antiperspirant deodorants, scientists still haven’t managed to selectively block body odour.

Researchers from the University of York and the University of Oxford have recently used the ESRF and Diamond Lightsource to find out what happens at a molecular level when we smell badly. They focused on the apocrine gland, which is found only in the armpit, genitalia and ear canal. It secrets an odourless lipid-rich viscous secretion, which is likely to play a role in scent generation, but it is not involved in thermoregulation.

It all comes down to bacteria. “The skin of our underarms provides a unique niche for bacteria,” explains investigator Gavin Thomas, professor in the department of biology at the University of York and co-leader of the study. “Through the secretions of various glands that open onto the skin or into hair follicles, this environment is nutrient-rich and hosts its own microbial community, the armpit microbiome, of many species of different microbes.”

>Read more on the European Synchrotron (ESRF) website

Image: Picture showing how body odour is produced in armpits.
Credit: University of York and Oxford. 

Dark-field X-ray microscopy provides surprising insight on ferroelectrics

Thanks to the unique capabilities of in-situ dark-field X-ray microscopy, scientists have now been able to see the complex structures hidden deep inside ferroelectric materials. The results, published today in Nature Materials, contradict previous studies in which only the surface was studied. This revolutionary new technique will be the main feature of a new beamline for the new EBS machine currently being built at the ESRF.

“Until now we could only see the surface of the material; dark-field x-ray microscopy is like creating a window to its interior”, explains Hugh Simons, assistant professor at the Technical University of Denmark and corresponding author of the study. “It provides incredible contrast for even the subtlest structures inside these materials, giving us a much clearer picture of how they work”, he adds.

Simons, together with the team of ID06 – the beamline where the technique is being developed – studied the ferroelectric material BaTiO3, which is used every day in cars, computers and mobile phones. By imaging their internal structure at the same time as they applied an electric field on it, they could see how these internal structures behave and change dynamically.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron (ESRF) website

Image: (extract) Crosssectional dark-field x-ray microscopy maps of the embedded BaTiO3 grain. (…) the reconstructed strain map reveals the structural relationship between domain clusters. Full picture here.
Credit: H. Simons.

Enlightening yellow in art

Scientists from the University of Perugia (Italy), CNR (Italy), University of Antwerp, the ESRF and DESY, have discovered how masterpieces degrade over time in a new study with mock-up paints carried out at synchrotrons ESRF and DESY. Humidity, coupled with light, appear to be the culprits.

The Scream by Munch, Flowers in a blue vase by Van Gogh or Joy of Life by Matisse, all have something in common: their cadmium yellow pigment. Throughout the years, this colour has faded into a whitish tone and, in some instances, crusts of the paint have arisen, as well as changes in the morphological properties of the paint, such as flaking or crumbling. Conservators and researchers have come to the rescue though, and they are currently using synchrotron techniques to study in depth these sulphide pigments and to find a solution to preserve them in the long run.

“This research has allowed us to make some progress. However, it is very difficult for us to pinpoint to what causes the yellow to go white as we don’t have all the information about how or where the paintings have been kept since they were done in the 19th century”, explains Letizia Monico, scientist from the University of Perugia and the CNR-ISTM. Indeed, limited knowledge of the environmental conditions (e.g., humidity, light, temperature…) in which paintings were stored or displayed over extended periods of time and the heterogeneous chemical composition of paint layers (often rendered more complex by later restoration interventions) hamper a thorough understanding of the overall degradation process.

>Read more on the ESRF website

Image: Some of the mock-up paints, prepared by Letizia Monico. Credits: C. Argoud.

The enigma of Rembrandt’s vivid white

Some of Rembrandt’s masterpieces are at the ESRF for some days, albeit only in minuscule form. The goal: to unveil the secrets of the artist’s white pigment.

Seven medical students surround a dead body while they attentively look at how the doctor is dissecting the deceased. The scene is set in a dark and gloomy environment, where even the faces of the characters show a grey tinge. Strangely, the only light in the scene is that coming from their white collars and the white sheet that partially covers the body. The vivid white creates a perplexing light-reflecting effect. Welcome to painting The anatomy lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, a piece of art displaying the baffling technique of the impasto, of which Rembrandt, its author, was a master.

Impasto is thick paint laid on the canvas in an amount that makes it stand from the surface. The relief of impasto increases the perceptibility of the paint by increasing its light-reflecting textural properties. Scientists know that Rembrandt achieved the impasto effect by using materials traditionally available on the 17th century Dutch colour market, namely the lead white pigment (mix of hydrocerussite Pb3(CO3)2.(OH)2 and cerussite PbCO3), chalk (calcite CaCO3) and organic mediums (mainly linseed oil). The precise recipe he used is, however, still unknown.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: The anatomy lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt.

 

Perovskites, the rising star for energy harvesting

Perovskites are promising candidates for photovoltaic cells, having reached an energy harvesting of more than 20% while it took silicon three decades to reach an equivalent. Scientists from all over the world are exploring these materials at the ESRF.

Photovoltaic (PV) panels exist in our society since several years now. The photovoltaic market is currently dominated by wafer-based photovoltaics or first generation PVs, namely the traditional crystalline silicon cells, which take a 90% of the market share.

Although silicon (Si) is an abundant material and the price of Si-PV has dropped in the past years, their manufacturing require costly facilities. In addition, their fabrication typically takes place in countries that rely on carbon-intensive forms of electricity generation (high carbon footprint).

But there is room for hope. There is a third generation of PV: those based on thin-film cells. These absorb light more efficiently and they currently take 10% of the market share.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: The CEA-CNRS team on ID01. From left to right: Peter Reiss, from CEA-Grenoble/INAC, Tobias Schulli from ID01, Tao Zhou from ID01, Asma Aicha Medjahed, Stephanie Pouget (both from CEA-Grenoble/INAC) and David Djurado, from the CNRS. 
Credits: C. Argoud.

Big science -literally- at ESRF

This is no ordinary experiment. With a huge detector in tow and a team of 15 scientists from Goethe University in Frankfurt (Germany), it is probably as big as science gets -literally.

A 4-metre-long lorry arrived at the ESRF with a precious load: a so-called COLTRIMS Reaction Microscope. The chamber is so big that it requires a crane to fit it into the experimental hutch of ID31. And lots of manpower to set the experiment up. The aim: to image the momentum distribution of one of the two electrons in the Helium atom without averaging over the momentum distribution of the other, offering the most complete and detailed view on electron correlation.

The COLTRIMS technique allows the team to measure event by event the initial state momentum of a Compton scattered electron of a Helium atom and, in coincidence with this, they measure the second electron’s momentum as it is shaken off.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: The team was in high spirits throughout the two-week duration of the experiment.
Credits: M. Kircher.

Synchrotron X-rays reveal identity of 1.5 million-year-old Tuscan big cat

The identity of a mysterious fossil felid found in central Italy has been revealed thanks to synchrotron techniques.

Scientists used X-ray tomography to virtually extract the fossil from its rock encasing and describe decisive anatomical details for the first time. Previously thought to be an extinct Eurasian jaguar, this new study concluded by identifying the felid as Acinonyx pardinensis, one of the most intriguing extinct carnivores of the Old World Plio-Pleistocene. The study is published in Scientific Reports.

The team of physicists and palaeontologists from the University of Perugia, the University of Verona and the University of Rome Sapienza, in collaboration with the European Synchrotron, ESRF, scanned the partial skull of the specimen, still embedded in the rock. The analysis of images and 3D models obtained revealed a mosaic of cheetah-like teeth and Panthera-like features leading to a reconsideration of the ecological role of this species.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Dawid Iurino with the Acinonyx pardinensis skull from Monte Argentario, on the set-up of ESRF ID17 beamline.
Credit: Marco Cherin

Taking additive manufacturing’s heart beat

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, builds objects by adding layers and it is emerging as a more flexible and reliable way of manufacturing complex structures in the aerospace, engineering and biomedical industries. A British team is at the ESRF’s ID19 to see into the heart of the process and understand it.

“I would not want to ship this equipment on an aeroplane”, Chu Lun Alex Leung said, scientist from the University of Manchester. “It was too precious to leave it in the hands of third parties”, he added. Instead of coming to the ESRF by aeroplane, Leung and his colleagues endured the 12-hour drive in a rental van all the way from Oxfordshire (UK) to the ESRF to make sure their unique equipment arrived safely.

Leung was referring to the laser additive manufacturing (LAM) process replicator, or LAMPR for short, a machine himself and colleagues at the Research Complex at Harwell have developed that 3D prints polymers, metals and ceramics while ESRF’s X-rays probe the heart of the process – the melting and solidification of powders to form complex 3D printed components.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: The team on the beamline, next to the laser additive manufacturing (LAM) process replicator. Front row: Margie P. Olbinado, Yunhui Chen. Back row: Sam Tammas-Williams, Lorna Sinclair, Peter D. Lee, Chu lun alex Leung, Samuel Clark, Sebastian Marussi.
Credit: C.Argoud