Photon science

The nanocosmos in X-ray light

When doctors take an X-ray, they generate an image of the interior of the patient’s body, allowing them to determine, for example, whether a bone has been broken as a result of an accident. Scientists too benefit from the penetrating capability of X-rays. For example, when physicists X-ray nanomaterial samples, they see not only which types of atoms are present but also how the atoms are arranged. Chemists use X-rays to precisely analyse what happens during catalysis – a process of enormous economic importance. Biologists work with X-rays to reveal the structures of proteins in order to better understand the causes of illness and develop better treatments.

Conventional X-ray tubes like those used in hospitals are generally not suitable for today’s scientific applications, because the X-rays they generate are too weak for the experiments. Particle accelerators, on the other hand, generate extremely powerful and focused radiation. These X-ray beams are so intense that they can reveal even the finest details – for example, the tiniest cracks and pores in a turbine blade, minute impurities in a semiconductor, or the positions of individual atoms in a protein molecule. Moreover, when researchers fire extremely short X-ray flashes at various samples, they are able to observe ultrafast processes such as those that occur in a chemical reaction.

Worldwide unique light sources

The DESY campus in Hamburg hosts some of the world’s best light sources: the PETRA III storage ring generates brilliant X-ray light for various experiments; the FLASH free-electron laser produces ultrashort laser pulses in the soft X-ray range; and the European XFEL X-ray laser is a true super microscope. These facilities make DESY the world's leading centre for research with X-rays.

A strong cooperation partner

Top-level research is scarcely possible today without networking and cooperation among various institutes, countries and scientific disciplines. DESY too operates within strong networks. Each year, the research centre’s unique facilities draw more than 3000 guest scientists from over 40 countries to Hamburg. More and more institutions are establishing outstations on the campus itself to benefit from the DESY facilities and work as closely as possible with DESY.