Discovering Trieste’s Very Own Synchrotron

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by InTrieste

Trieste is a city of art and science. Its artistic side is easy to see in ornate architecture, galleries, and museums; in art-house cinemas, music, and theater. Its scientific side can often be a little hidden, as in the case of the Elettra Synchrotron, which has been nestled in Basovizza in the outskirts of Trieste since 1993.

So, what is a synchrotron? Skipping the swathes of science that can be accessed here by the so-inclined, it’s a large ring containing charged particles that travel extremely fast (close to the speed of light), shooting out X-rays as they go.

These X-rays can be harnessed and shot through beam lines aimed at the particular thing a researcher would like to investigate, such as a virus strain, or a nanomaterial. Each beam is used for a particular type of investigation, with some beams measuring ultra-fast changes in bodily proteins or studying virus particles, and others detecting the underlying structure of a solid object (this type of technique can be used to analyze fossils).

2D polymer image captured at Elettra

Synchrotron radiation provides high quality images and accurate data, and even though it is in operation 24 hours a day, with only periodic maintenance shutdowns, beam time (a window of time in which a research group are allowed to work on a particular beam) is much sought-after, with scientists from over 50 countries submitting proposals and applying for funding to secure time on a particular beam. 

The experimental hall of the synchrotron

In January 2019, the Elettra facility also opened a light source that runs along a straight line called FERMI (meaning Free Electron laser Radiation for Multidisciplinary Investigations), which produces ultra-powerful pulsed X-rays that can be used to study the most minute characteristics of atoms and molecules. Precise next-generation lasers such as FERMI allow us to observe nature at the atomic level, and better understand the make-up of the world around us. With researchers already flocking to this new addition to Trieste’s science facilities, the city’s scientific side may be hidden in the hills, but it’s going from strength to strength.

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