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Synchrotron light sources are particle accelerators – machines that accelerate electrons close to the speed of light.

As these electrons, steered by magnets, race around a giant vacuum ring, they give off energy in the form of highly directional beams of light – from infrared and ultraviolet light to pinpoint beams of extremely intense X-rays.

Scientists use this synchrotron light, which is 10 billion times more intense than the Sun, to delve deep into the atomic and molecular details of the world around us. Being able to ‘see’ at this sub-atomic level can help to answer age-old fundamental mysteries, as well as provide solutions to pressing modern day issues.

The UK made a large contribution to research using international synchrotron light when, in 1981, the world’s first dedicated X-ray-producing synchrotron was built at STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire.

Today, STFC manages the availability of synchrotron light source facilities for UK scientists and researchers through its subscription to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France and as the major shareholder in the Diamond Light Source facility at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.

Key facts

The ESRF is the largest synchrotron facility in Europe, and one of the largest in the world. Operational since 1994, it is a high energy, joint facility supported and shared by 19 countries. The investment of the UK via STFC is 14%. About a thousand UK scientists are regular users of the 31 public ESRF beamlines. In addition, the UK scientists have access to the Xmas (X-ray magnetic scattering) beamline funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Diamond is the UK’s national synchrotron facility and is a medium energy source. Operational in 2007, it is funded by the UK Government through STFC (86%) and the Wellcome Trust (14%) through a joint venture company set up to build and operate the facility and ensure sound management of the project throughout its lifetime.

It represents the largest UK-funded scientific facility to be built for over 40 years and could ultimately host up to 40 beamlines for scientific research. To date Diamond has had over 3,000 users expressing an interest in the facility.

The applications of synchrotrons cover virtually all sciences – fundamental physics, engineering, environmental, medicine, biology, chemistry, cultural heritage and more. Through the ESRF and Diamond, STFC is helping to keep UK science at the forefront of ground breaking research worldwide.

Previous and ongoing projects include:

  • pioneering research into developing new cancer therapies that can be tailored to the individual patient
  • working with metal munching earthworms to establish new ways to clean up polluted soil and improve the environment
  • improving the efficiency of hydrogen storage to make it a realistic option for a sustainable energy source
  • solving the molecular structure of the foot and mouth disease virus, leading to the development of an effective vaccine
  • taking the metal lead from mussels and clams to create new robust and environmentally friendly materials for engineering and biomedical use
  • understanding how metallic nanoparticles behave under changing conditions, leading to electronic, optical and medical applications
  • helping to preserve the centuries old timbers of King Henry VIII’s favourite warship, the Mary Rose, for future generations



Neil Pratt
Head, Light Sources and Neutrons Division
Tel: +44 (0)1793 442 899
ESRF website: http://www.esrf.eu
Diamond website: http://www.diamond.ac.uk
For media enquiries please telephone: +33 4 7688 2128 (ESRF)
or +44 (0)1235 778 130 (diamond)


Research using synchrotron facilities has led to many significant breakthroughs, and has been recognised in Nobel Prizes for Chemistry.

Professor Sir John E. Walker, based at the Medical Research Council Mitochondrial Biology Unit at Cambridge, used the facility at Daresbury to solve the structure of the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) synthase enzyme, which is responsible for transforming energy within the body.

Cambridge-based Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan was amongst a team that used the facilities at Daresbury to screen, and ESRF to determine, the structure and function of the ribosome, revealing how it translates DNA information into proteins.

Last updated: 17 March 2016


Science and Technology Facilities Council
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