APS to accelerate biological and environmental research

The eBERlight program aims to connect the world-leading X-ray facility with more scientists studying Earth’s climate, environment and bioeconomy crops.

The Earth is a complex ecosystem, and our place in it is dependent on many different factors. From soil health to air quality to the behavior of plants and microorganisms, understanding our natural world and its other inhabitants is vital to our own survival. As the climate continues to change, research into the environment and its diverse forms of life will only become more important.

In October 2023, the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facility at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, will officially launch a new initiative to expand biological and environmental research at the world leading X-ray and analysis facility. The enterprise, dubbed eBERlight, recently received approval from DOE’s Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program. Its goal is to connect researchers conducting experiments within the BER mission with the world-leading X-ray science resources of the APS. By increasing access to multiple capabilities at the APS, the minds behind eBERlight hope to find new scientific approaches and engage new groups of multidisciplinary researchers towards investigating new insights about the world in which we live.

“This is an opportunity to build something new that, until now, hasn’t existed at APS,” said Karolina Michalska, a protein crystallographer at Argonne who is leading the eBERlight effort. ​“We’re broadening the access to accommodate more biological and environmental research, and since this program is so new, the scientists who will use the facility are helping us to develop it.”

Read more on the APS website

Image: The eBERlight program at the Advanced Photon Source will enable research into many areas of biological and environmental science, including studies of crop growth for biofuels and biomanufacturing.

Credit: Shutterstock/JJ. Gouin

The shape of snow: New insights could help climate models

Scientists from the Institut des Géosciences de l’Environnement of Grenoble, the Centre d’Etudes de la Neige and the Groupe de Météorologie Expérimentale et Instrumentale have developed a new approach for measuring the interaction between snow and sunlight. This methodology is important to improve the accuracy of climate models. They did X-ray tomography experiments at ESRF ID19 beamline. The results are published in Nature Communications.

Once deposited on the ground, snow is a material composed of air and ice crystals, whose shape and arrangement vary greatly at the micrometre scale. This is known as the microstructure of snow. This “skeleton” of ice and air governs the propagation of light within the snowpack through optical phenomena such as refraction and internal reflections in the ice phase.

However, despite its extreme complexity and irregularity, natural snow is still represented in a simplistic manner in almost all optical models, including those implemented in climate models. These models typically depict snow as a collection of ice particles with perfect geometric shapes, mainly spheres. Among the many implications for the energy balance of snow, this simplification leads to significant uncertainties in climate modelling, with potential impacts of up to 1.2°C on global air temperature.

In this new study, the authors from the Institut des Géosciences de l’Environnement of Grenoble (IGE / CNRS – INRAE – IRD – UGA – Grenoble INP-UGA), the Centre d’Etudes de la Neige (CEN / CNRM / Météo-France – CNRS) and the Groupe de Météorologie Expérimentale et Instrumentale (GMEI / CNRM / Météo-France – CNRS) have accurately simulated the light propagation in a collection of 3D images of snow microstructure obtained by X-ray tomography, using a ray-tracing model. Very different snow types were investigated, from fresh snow (PP) to refrozen melt-freeze forms (MF). Some images were obtained at the 3SR-Lab. Several snow microstructures required higher resolution and were acquired at ESRF beamline ID19.

Read more on the ESRF website

Image: Snow microstructure: This is what fresh snow looks like at the micrometre scale

The key to why plants flower early in a warming world

Scientists have unveiled a new mechanism that plants use to sense temperature. This finding could lead to solutions to counteract some of the deleterious changes in plant growth, flowering and seed production due to climate change. The results are published today in PNAS.

The rise of temperatures worldwide due to climate change is having detrimental consequences for plants. They tend to flower earlier than before and rush through the reproductive process, which translates into less fruits and less seeds and reduced biomass.

Scientists are now working on the plants’ circadian clock, which determines their growth, metabolism and when they flower. The key thermosensor of the circadian clock is EARLY FLOWERING 3 (ELF3), a protein that plays a vital role in plant development. It integrates various environmental cues, such as light and temperature, with internal developmental signals, to regulate the expression of flowering genes and determine when plants grow and bloom.

A team from the ESRF, CEA and CNRS have determined the molecular mechanism of how ELF3 works in vitro and in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. As temperature rises, ELF3 undergoes a process called phase separation. This means that two liquid phases co-exist, in a similar way to oil and water. “We believe that when it goes through phase separation, it sequesters different protein partners like transcription factors, which translates into faster growth and early flowering as a function of elevated temperature”, explains Chloe Zubieta, CNRS Research Director from the Laboratoire de Physiologie Cellulaire et Vegetale at the CEA Grenoble (CNRS/Univ. Grenoble Alpes/CEA/INRAE UMR 5168) and co-corresponding author of the publication. “We are trying to understand the biophysics of the prion-like domain inside ELF3, which we think is the responsible for this phase separation.

ELF3 is a flexible protein, with no well-defined structure, so it cannot be studied using X-ray crystallography, as it needs to be in solution. Instead, the team used mainly Small Angle X-ray Scattering. All existing models showed that the structure would be highly disordered. Then the surprise came up: “I’ve seen many prion-like domains involved in phase separation, but this is the first time I saw something fundamentally different”, explains Mark Tully, ESRF scientist on BM29 and co-corresponding author of the publication.

Read more on the ESRF website

New SLAC-Stanford Battery Center targets roadblocks to a sustainable energy transition

The center at SLAC aims to bridge the gaps between discovering, manufacturing and deploying innovative energy storage solutions. 

The Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University today announced the launch of a new joint battery center at SLAC. It will bring together the resources and expertise of the national lab, the university and Silicon Valley to accelerate the deployment of batteries and other energy storage solutions as part of the energy transition that’s essential for addressing climate change.

A key part of this transition will be to decarbonize the world’s transportation systems and electric grids ­– to power them without fossil fuels. To do so, society will need to develop the capacity to store several hundred terawatt-hours of sustainably generated energy. Only about 1% of that capacity is in place today.

Filling the enormous gap between what we have and what we need is one of the biggest challenges in energy research and development. It will require that experts in chemistry, materials science, engineering and a host of other fields join forces to make batteries safer, more efficient and less costly and manufacture them more sustainably from earth-abundant materials, all on a global scale. 

The SLAC-Stanford Battery Center will address that challenge. It will serve as the nexus for battery research at the lab and the university, bringing together large numbers of faculty, staff scientists, students and postdoctoral researchers from SLAC and Stanford for research, education and workforce training. 

 “We’re excited to launch this center and to work with our partners on tackling one of today’s most pressing global issues,” said interim SLAC Director Stephen Streiffer. “The center will leverage the combined strengths of Stanford and SLAC, including experts and industry partners from a wide variety of disciplines, and provide access to the lab’s world-class scientific facilities. All of these are important to move novel energy storage technologies out of the lab and into widespread use.”

Expert research with unique tools

Research and development at the center will span a vast range of systems – from understanding chemical reactions that store energy in electrodes to designing battery materials at the nanoscale, making and testing devices, improving manufacturing processes and finding ways to scale up those processes so they can become part of everyday life. 

“It’s not enough to make a game-changing battery material in small amounts,” said Jagjit Nanda, a SLAC distinguished scientist, Stanford adjunct professor and executive director of the new center, whose background includes decades of battery research at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “We have to understand the manufacturing science needed to make it in larger quantities on a massive scale without compromising on performance.”

Longstanding collaborations between SLAC and Stanford researchers have already produced many important insights into how batteries work and how to make them smaller, lighter, safer and more powerful. These studies have used machine learning to quickly identify the most promising battery materials from hundreds made in the lab, and measured the properties of those materials and the nanoscale details of battery operation at the lab’s synchrotron X-ray facility. SLAC’s X-ray free-electron laser is available, as well, for fundamental studies of energy-related materials and processes. 

SLAC and Stanford also pioneered the use of cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a technique developed to image biology in atomic detail, to get the first clear look at finger-like growths that can degrade lithium-ion batteries and set them on fire. This technique has also been used to probe squishy layers that build up on electrodes and must be carefully managed, in research performed at the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences (SIMES).

Nanda said the center will also focus on making energy storage more sustainable, for instance by choosing materials that are abundant, easy to recycle and can be extracted in a way that’s less costly and produces fewer emissions.

Read more on the SLAC website

A toothy temporal map of Arctic climate change

In the vast, remoteness of the Arctic, few have the opportunity to gather data on the environmental conditions over time or decipher the long-term effects of climate change. What is required? A considerable period to observe, a nearly autonomous method or actor for collection, a robust character to withstand the harsh surroundings. Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark are tackling this issue through an interdisciplinary NordForsk project. At DanMAX beamline, the group will analyse a narwhal tusk to determine its chemical composition and biomineralization, both important potential markers of the changing environment.

Significant, accelerated signs of climate change have been reported in the Arctic and Antarctic zones, which research shows impact global climate. Scientists are looking at different ways to interpret the terrestrial and oceanic changes occurring in these areas, and how the change affects native wildlife. The described NordForsk project, developed by researchers from Denmark, Greenland and Sweden, seeks to elucidate the structure and formation of the narwhal tusk, and map the full life history of the animal through the growth lines along the full length of the tusk.

Read more on the MAX IV website

Image: Peter A. S. Vibe readies samples of the tusk at DanMAX beamline. 

Credit: MAX IV Laboratory

I am doing science that is more important than my sleep!

NSLS-II #LightSourceSelfie

Dan Olds is an associate physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory where he works as a beamline scientist at NSLS-II. Dan’s research involves combining artificial intelligence and machine learning to perform real-time analysis on streaming data while beamline experiments are being performed. Often these new AI driven methods are critical to success during in situ studies of materials. These include next generational battery components, accident safe nuclear fuels, catalytic materials and other emerging technologies that will help us develop clean energy solutions to fight climate change.

Dan’s #LightSourceSelfie delves into what attracted him to this area of research, the inspiration he gets from helping users on the beamline and the addictive excitement that comes from doing science at 3am.

Uniting science to address climate change

Key leaders and researchers from major US and European big science laboratories, namely EIROforum (Europe’s eight largest intergovernmental scientific research organisations, including CERN, EMBL, ESA, ESO, ESRF, EUROfusion, European XFEL and ILL) and the US Department of Energy’s seventeen National Laboratories (Ames, Argonne, Brookhaven, Fermi, Idaho, Jefferson, Los Alamos, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, NETL, NREL, Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest, PPPL, SLAC, Sandia and Savannah River), met by videoconference ahead of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26).

Sharing the same values, and convinced that science performs best through collaboration, the EIROforum’s directors and NLDC (comprised of directors from the US National Laboratories) affirmed their common commitment to unite science towards a sustainable and resilient global society and economy:

  • By stepping up their scientific collaboration on carbon-neutral energy and climate change
  • By sharing best practices to improve the climate sustainability and carbon footprint of Europe’s and US’s big science facilities
  • By sharing knowledge and fostering public engagement on clean energy and climate change research

Read more on the ESRF website

Image: COP26

Credit: ESRF

SESAME’s Materials Science beamline starts full user operation

On 17 December 2020, SESAME opened the doors of its Materials Science (MS) beamline to a team from the Royal Scientific Society (RSS) in Jordan, making this instrument, which is dedicated to structural studies with X-ray powder diffraction, the third of the Centre’s beamlines to be fully operational and hosting users.

“We are looking at the first diffraction pattern ever measured for a user sample on the newly-commissioned MS beamline at SESAME. RSS has a place in the history of SESAME”, said HRH Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, President of the RSS.

The RSS team consists of Kyle Cordova, Executive Director of Scientific Research and Assistant for Research and Development to HRH Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, and his colleague, the Junior Staff Scientist Ala’a Al-Ghourani. “Our research is focused on discovering new, highly-porous materials for use in mitigating the effects of climate change. Understanding our material’s structure at the atomic level is critical for ensuring that the target application can be met. SESAME’s MS beamline allows us to do this – through X-ray diffraction we can solve the chemical structure in order to improve our material’s end performance” indicated Kyle Cordova, adding “Being the first users is an immense honour. I am proud to be representing Jordan’s largest applied research institution, the Royal Scientific Society, in this historic first!”

Read more on the SESAME website

Image: Ala’a Al-Ghourani and Mahmoud Abdellatief preparing to mount a sample for study in the experimental hutch of the MS beamline.

Credit: Royal Scientific Society

Ocean acidification risks deep-sea coral reef collapse

Diamond X-rays were used in a recent study that suggests climate change is triggering changes to the chemistry of deep-sea coral reefs which may cause their foundations to become brittle. 

Reefs are home to a multitude of aquatic life and the underlying structures of these reefs could fracture as a result of increasing ocean acidity caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide. 

Rising acidity 

Researchers measured the lowest and most acidic pH level ever recorded on living coral reefs hundreds of metres below the surface of the ocean in Southern California. The corals were then raised in the lab for one year under the same conditions. 

Scientists observed that the skeletons of dead corals, which support and hold up living corals, had become porous due to ocean acidification and rapidly become too fragile to bear the weight of the reef above them. The Diamond Manchester Imaging Branchline (I13-2) enabled the team to retrieve phase sensitive images that revealed gradients and de-mineralisation profiles in the coral samples. 

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Lophelia pertusa skeleton with evidence of dissolution around the outside walls. Image: Sebastian Hennige

Converting emissions into valuable fuel

Researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to improve their technique to convert CO2 into ethanol, a valuable chemical that can be used in a variety of industrial applications. Ethanol is also an attractive alternative fuel.

Ethanol has been proven to reduce emissions when compared to gasoline, but the renewable fuel is most often made of corn and wheat so there is a strong interest in non-food production methods. By capturing and converting carbon emissions to ethanol, the fuel’s environmental benefits could be multiplied.

The research team led by Prof. Ted Sargent at the University of Toronto focused on producing chemicals through CO2 conversion—such as ethanol, ethylene and methane—helping to transform harmful greenhouse gases into useful products. The group aims to produce the target chemicals, in this case ethanol, with high outputs and minimal energy inputs.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Xue Wang installing a membrane electrode assembly MEA cell for testing the performance of the N-CCu catalyst in CO2RR.

Mapping metals in feathers

Synchrotron technique promising for tracing metals in nature

University of Saskatchewan (USask) and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC)  researchers have mapped metals in bird feathers, a technique that could help make environmental monitoring less destructive.

In a recent paper published in X-ray Spectrometry, researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron at USask to examine the level and distribution of zinc in feathers from birds that were fed high-zinc diets.

“The same technique could be applied to toxic metals like mercury, even at low concentrations,” says Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientist Fardausi Akhter. “You could just take a feather from the bird and be able to show if it was exposed to toxic metals present in the environment.”

Akhter, a toxicologist interested in applying synchrotron techniques to environmental questions, first started working on this project with Graham Fairhurst, a USask avian ecophysiologist, when they were both working as postdocs supervised by Catherine Soos. Soos is a wildlife health specialist and research scientist at ECCC, and adjunct professor at USask (Department of Veterinary Pathology, Western College of Veterinary Medicine), whose research focuses on investigating impacts of large-scale environmental changes on wildlife health. Her team often uses feathers as tools to evaluate exposure to toxic metals, and impacts of exposure on health of wild birds.  

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Part of the research team at CLS (left to right): Fardausi (Shathi) Akhter, Jamille McLeod (ECCC), Bruce Pauli (ECCC), Peter Blanchard (CLS), Landon McPhee (ECCC), and Catherine Soos (ECCC)

Using soil to combat climate change

Researchers are using synchrotron light to better understand the impact of climate change on more than three trillion metric tonnes of soil carbon around the world.

Using the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan, scientists from across the United States investigated the plant root mechanisms that control long-term storage of carbon in deep soil. Their findings will have ramifications for global industries such as agriculture, which have touted the benefits of carbon sequestration as their contribution to fighting climate change.

“The significance of our work is we not only show that plants are conduits of carbon into the soil, but the roots also regulate how much carbon the deep soil can store or lose,” said Dr. Marco Keiluweit, a biogeochemist at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture in the University of Massachusetts.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

Image: Rhizogenic weathering extract; (full image here)

Using reed waste for sustainable batteries

With the changing climate, researchers are focusing on finding sustainable alternatives to conventional fuel cells and battery designs. Traditional catalysts used in vehicles contribute to increasing carbon dioxide emissions and mining for materials used in their design has a negative impact on the environment. Prof. Shuhui Sun, a researcher from the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) in Montreal, and his team used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to investigate an Iron-Nitrogen-Carbon catalyst using reed waste.

They hope to use the bio-based materials to create high-performance fuel cells and metal-air batteries, which could be used in electric cars. “An efficient oxygen electrocatalyst is extremely important for the development of high-performance electrochemical energy conversion and storage devices. Currently, the rare and expensive Pt-based catalysts are commonly used in these devices. Therefore, developing highly efficient and low-cost non-precious metal (e.g., Fe-based) catalysts to facilitate a sluggish cathodic oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) is a key issue for metal air batteries and fuel cells,” said Qilang Wei, the first author of the paper.

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

A step closer to smart catalysts for fuel generation

Researchers at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil in collaboration with the ALBA Synchrotron have performed the first detailed measurement of the strong metal-support interaction (SMSI) effect in Cu-Ni nanoparticles supported on cerium oxide.

A better understanding of this effect is essential for developing smart catalysts that are more selective, stable and sustainable. The quest for the best catalysts in industry has been a long one, but a new study by Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, in collaboration with the ALBA Synchrotron, has come a step closer. For the first time, researchers have found evidence of what could be the origin of the SMSI effect in catalysts supported on cerium oxide.

Catalysts are used to increase the reaction rate of a given chemical reaction, and have applications in a wide variety of fields. In heterogeneous catalysis, the catalyst is usually composed of metal nanoparticles supported on metal oxides. Among them, CeO2-based catalysts have unique structural and atomic properties that make them suitable in the cutting-edge environmental industry of fuel cells and hydrogen. In this field, they are being explored as high-end photocatalytic reactors for the thermal splitting of water and carbon dioxide. However, what has been termed as the SMSI effect can undermine their desired properties.

>Read more on the ALBA website

Image: (extract, full picture here) Near Ambient Pressure – X-ray Photoemission Spectroscopy allowed the identification of the chemical components of the nanoparticles in situ.

Enhancing solar energy production

Research investigates ways to convert titanium dioxide into a new photoactive material in the visible light range.

The search for clean and renewable energy sources has intensified in recent years due to the increase in atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and the consequent increase in the average temperature of the planet. One such alternative source is the conversion of sunlight into electricity through photovoltaic panels. The efficiency in this conversion depends on the intrinsic properties of the materials used in the manufacturing of the panels, and it increases year by year with the discovery of new and better materials. As such, solar energy is expected to become one of the main sources of electric energy by the middle of this century, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Titanium dioxide (TiO2) is an abundant, nontoxic, biologically inert and chemically stable material, known primarily as a white pigment used in paints, cosmetics and even toothpastes. TiO2 is also often used in sunscreens since it is especially capable of absorbing radiation in the ultraviolet region. However, this same property severely limits the use of TiO2 for solar energy conversion, since the ultraviolet emission comprises only 5 to 8% of the total energy of the solar light.

Can this TiO2 property be extended to the visible light region to increase the conversion of sunlight into electricity? To answer this question, Maria Pilar de Lara-Castells et al. [1] conducted an innovative research in which they discuss how a special treatment can change the optical properties of TiO2.

>Read more on the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory website

Why having your head in the clouds could be a really good thing

The ATMOS research group in the NANOMO unit, led by Nønne Prisle, Associate Professor at the University of Oulu, are trying to find out what kind of chemistry is happening in cloud droplets and tiny nanometer-sized aerosol particles in the atmosphere. This knowledge could eventually, hopefully, give us more accurate theoretical models to understand the ongoing climate change.
– The only thing that can halter climate change is to stop emitting CO2. Nønne Prisle is very, very clear on that. Even so, she says, if we want to take any other step to try to counter climate change, we really need to know what’s going on in the clouds since these processes could be quite critical.
The ATMOS team are using the beamline HIPPIE at MAX IV being so-called commissioning experts, which means that the experiment is done both to provide useful data but also to verify the capacity and capability of the beamline experimental station.

>Read more on the MAX IV Laboratory website

Image: From left to right: Robert Seidel, Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin; Nønne Prisle, Kamal Raj and Jack Lin, University of Oulu at the HIPPIE beamline.