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

How dolphins could potentially lead to new antibiotics

The world is currently living through a multidrug resistance problem, where antibiotics that traditionally work are not effective anymore. A European team of scientists at the University of Hamburg (Germany), University of Munich (Germany), University of Bordeaux (France), University of Trieste (Italy) and University of London (UK) have studied how some peptides in dolphins target bacterial ribosomes and hence, could provide clues about potential new antibiotics.

Proline-rich antimicrobial peptides (PrAMPs) are antibacterial components of the immune systems of animals such as honey bees, cows and, as this study proves, bottlenose dolphins. These peptides are a first response for the killing of bacteria. In humans, antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) mainly kill bacteria by disrupting the bacterial cell membrane, but so far no evidence of PrAMPs has been found. PrAMPs have a different mechanism of action to AMPs: they pass through the membrane of the cell without perturbing it and bind to ribosomes to inhibit protein synthesis.

The European team have been studying the mechanism of action of bacteria killing peptides in animals: “We want to compare PrAMPs from different organisms to mechanistically understand how these peptides inhibit bacteria”, Daniel Wilson explains.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Illustration showing the mechanism of Tur1A. (entire image: here)
Credits: D. Wilson

Putting CO2 to a good use

One of the biggest culprits of climate change is an overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

As the world tries to find solutions to reverse the problem, scientists from Swansea University have found a way of using CO2 to create ethylene, a key chemical precursor. They have used ID03 to test their hypotheses.

Carbon dioxide is essential for the survival of animals and plants. However, people are the biggest producers of CO2 emissions. The extensive use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, or natural gas has created an excess of CO2 in the atmosphere, leading to global warming. Considerable research focuses on capturing and storing harmful carbon dioxide emissions. But an alternative to expensive long-term storage is to use the captured CO2 as a resource to make useful materials.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron wesbite

Fighting malaria with X-rays

Today 25 April, is World Malaria Day.

Considered as one of humanity’s oldest life-threatening diseases, nearly half the world population is at risk, with 216 million people affected in 91 countries worldwide in 2016. Malaria causes 445 000 deaths every year, mainly among children. The ESRF has been involved in research into Malaria since 2005, with different techniques being used in the quest to find ways to prevent or cure the disease.

Malaria in humans is caused by Plasmodium parasites, the greatest threat coming from two species: P. falciparum and P. vivax. The parasites are introduced through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. They travel to the liver where they multiply, producing thousands of new parasites. These enter the blood stream and invade red blood cells, where they feed on hemoglobin (Hgb) in order to grow and multiply. After creating up to 20 new parasites, the red blood cells burst, releasing daughter parasites ready for new invasions. This life cycle leads to an exponential growth of infected red blood cells that may cause the death of the human host.

The research carried out over the years at the ESRF has aimed to identify mechanisms critical for the parasite’s survival in the hope of providing an intelligent basis for the development of drugs to stop the parasite’s multiplication and spread.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Inside the experimental hutch of the ESRF’s ID16A nano-analysis beamlin.
Credit: Pierre Jayet

Unravelling the great vision of flies

Fruit flies have a much better vision than what was previously believed in the scientific community.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield (UK), the University of Oulu (Finland), Max IV (Sweden) and University of Szeged (Hungary) are on ID16B trying to find out what happens in the photoreceptors in these insects’ eyes.

“It had always been claimed that fly’s eyesight was very basic, but I couldn’t believe that after so many centuries of evolution this was still the case”, explains Mikko Juusola, head of the Centre for Cognition in Small Brains at Sheffield University. So he started studying vision in fruit flies a decade ago and last year himself and his team debunked previous hypothesis: they proved that insects have a much better vision and can see in far greater detail than previously thought.

Insects’ compound eyes typically consist of thousands of tiny lens-capped ‘eye-units’, which together should capture a low-resolution pixelated image of the surrounding world. In contrast, the human eye has a single large lens, and the retinal photoreceptor array underneath it is densely-packed, which allows the eye to capture high-resolution images. This is why it was believed that insects did not have a good eyesight. Until Juusola came in the picture.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Marko Huttula (University of Oulu, Finland), Jussi-Petteri Suuronen (ESRF) and Mikko Juusola (University of Sheffield, UK) on ESRF’s ID16B beamline. Credit: ©ESRF/C.Argoud

Serial crystallography develops by leaps and bounds at the ESRF

Serial crystallography is a new way of studying macromolecular structures using synchrotron and X-FEL sources around the world.

The Structural Biology group at the ESRF is continuously developing new methods to advance the field. Two articles describing advances made are published today in Acta Crystallographica Section D.

“On the Structural Biology Group beamlines one of the ultimate aims is that users can define protocols for experiments, click ‘go’ and let the experiments run by themselves”, explains Gordon Leonard, head of the Structural Biology group at the ESRF. With this idea in mind and to get as much information as possible from the samples available, the team has already adopted serial crystallography, a technique which involves taking diffraction data from many, sometimes hundreds or thousands, of crystals in order to assemble a complete dataset, piece by piece. Indeed, the members of the group are constantly developing new ways to improve the method through collaboration involving scientists from the ESRF, DESY, the Hamburg Centre for Ultrafast Imaging, the European X-FEL and the University of Hamburg.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: Daniele de Sanctis on the ID29 beamline.
Credit: S. Candé.

A colour photography pioneer comes to light thanks to the synchrotron

The colour prints of Louis Ducos du Hauron, an unknown pioneer of colour photography, have been put under the infrared and X-rays at the ESRF, the European Synchrotron (Grenoble, France) to better understand the methods he used. A team of researchers and curators from the ESRF, CNRS, C2RMF , Musée d’Orsay, École nationale supérieure Louis Lumière, the faculty of Science and Engineering of the Sorbonne University, the Chimie Paris Tech and a private photography conservator and curator has published the results of this study in Angewandte Chemie.

Who invented colour photography?

To this question, most people would reply “the brothers Lumière”. Their procedure “autochrome” is recorded into posterity because the brothers commercialised it with success. However, a photography pioneer has been kept in the shadow: Louis Ducos du Hauron. This is despite the fact that he patented an animated image-processing method in 1864, the same year that Louis Lumière was born. He was the first one to produce three-color prints using three negatives printed into three colour positives (one red, one yellow and one blue), in a similar manner to how printers today function.

As if he were a cook, Ducos du Hauron spent his life creating “recipes” – procedures based on scientific experimentation- to achieve a faithful reconstruction of reality through colour photographs. He photographed each scene through green, orange, and violet filters, then printed his three negatives on three thin films of dichromate gelatin containing red, blue, and yellow pigments, the complementary colours of the filters used for the negatives. When the three positives were superimposed, a full-colour photograph resulted.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron (ESRF) website

Image: General principle of three-color carbon printing developed by Ducos du Hauron. (Full image here)
Credit: ESRF

The early bird got to fly: Archaeopteryx was an active flyer

Was Archaeopteryx capable of flying, and if so, how?

The question of whether the Late Jurassic dino-bird Archaeopteryx was an elaborately feathered ground dweller, a glider, or an active flyer has fascinated palaeontologists for decades. Valuable new information obtained with state-of-the-art synchrotron microtomography at the ESRF, the European Synchrotron (Grenoble, France), allowed an international team of scientists to answer this question in Nature Communications. The wing bones of Archaeopteryx were shaped for incidental active flight, but not for the advanced style of flying mastered by today’s birds.

Was Archaeopteryx capable of flying, and if so, how? Although it is common knowledge that modern-day birds descended from extinct dinosaurs, many questions on their early evolution and the development of avian flight remain unanswered. Traditional research methods have thus far been unable to answer the question whether Archaeopteryx flew or not. Using synchrotron microtomography at the ESRF’s beamline ID19 to probe inside Archaeopteryx fossils, an international team of scientists from the ESRF, Palacký University, Czech Republic, CNRS and Sorbonne University, France, Uppsala University, Sweden, and Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum Solnhofen, Germany, shed new light on this earliest of birds.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: The Munich specimen of the transitional bird Archaeopteryx. It preserves a partial skull (top left), shoulder girdle and both wings slightly raised up (most left to center left), the ribcage (center), and the pelvic girdle and both legs in a “cycling” posture (right); all connected by the vertebral column from the neck (top left, under the skull) to the tip of the tail (most right). Imprints of its wing feathers are visible radiating from below the shoulder and vague imprints of the tail plumage can be recognised extending from the tip of the tail.
Credits: ESRF/Pascal Goetgheluck

What makes pollen walls the most durable biological material?

Sporopollenin is the most durable biological material in nature and is a major component of the outer wall of pollen.

Scientists at the Natural History Museum (UK) and the ESRF are investigating the structure of the pollen wall this past weekend, on ID16A, to find out why this material is so resistant.

This experiment would not have taken place if chance, luck, but mostly curiosity had not played a major role in this story. ESRF post-doctoral researcher Ruxandra Cojocaru was talking to colleagues at the facility, looking for an appropriate material for a sedimentation study. Many discussions later, she ended up finding what she needed at the Natural History Museum in London, where curator and pollen specialist Stephen Stukins works.

Several exchanges later, and with an approved proposal for a different project than the original, they are now on ID16A to study the structure of pollen at nanolevel. “Throughout time, there have been species that have disappeared, yet the major plant groups have been relatively resistant to extinction. This may be due to the resistant sporopollenin material that was adapted for plant survival on land, especially exposure to UV radiation”, explains Stukins. With fellow NHM microfossil curator Giles Miller, he has brought fossil samples of Bathonian age, from the Jurassic era, that are part of the museum collection. “What we want to see is the structure of pollen, and more precisely of the sporopollenin outer wall. This is an almost inert biological polymer and we think it is key to the properties of pollen”, says Stukins.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website

Image: the sample in its set-up at the European Synchrotron.
Credit: Montserrat Capellas Espuny

Opportunities for industry in the Big Science Business Forum

The European Synchrotron is immersed in the construction of the Extremely Brilliant Source, a new machine which has and will continue to open doors for industry to get involved.

From procurement to licensing or even through European programmes, the possibilities of marrying the big scientific infrastructures to industry are endless. A team of ESRF engineers and experts are present at the Big Science Business Forum this week to showcase their expertise and match it with the best companies.

In the coming years, with the new machine, there will be 56 million euros for technology development up for grabs. These will cover instrumentation and X-ray optics for the beamlines, detectors, electronics and motor control and information technology. “We have successfully finalised all of the procurement regarding the construction of the new machine, now we are concentrating on the new beamlines”, explains Ingrid Milanese, head of procurement and contracts.

Procurement at a place like the ESRF is an exciting albeit sometimes challenging task. The fact that the institute’s developments are at the forefront of technology means that the procurement officers deal with a very specialised market, so there is a lot of work on trying to find the right companies. On top of that, there are strict timeframes to be respected, as well as a policy of juste-retour with the member states that participate in funding the ESRF. “Because of our nature, we challenge industry and create opportunities for disruptive innovation in many different fields”, explains Michael Krisch,   member of the ATTRACT Project Consortium Board and Head of the Instrumentation Services and Development Division at the ESRF.

>Read more on the European Synchrotron website