Brussels, 07 Feb 2005 Large-scale research infrastructures are costly to build and maintain. Once they are up and running, it is often difficult and expensive to gain access to them. A handful of European countries have overcome some of these barriers by banding together to create a new X-ray laser facility.
Scientists at the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) announced last week that an important milestone had been reached in their campaign to develop a European X-ray free electron laser (XFEL). Nine European countries signed a memorandum of understanding in which they agree to lay the groundwork for the new laser facility.
The XFEL opens up new possibilities in the vast field of structural research. It will generate extremely brilliant, ultra-short X-ray pulses with laser-like properties. This will offer entirely new research conditions for the natural sciences and industrial users, say DESY. Researchers will literally be able to film molecular and atomic processes, and take snapshots of the atomic details of materials and bio-molecules.
With their signatures, the countries – France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland – are basically paving the way for the formal inter-governmental agreement on the construction and operation of the XFEL research facility. This includes working out proposals for detailed build schedules, funding, the future organisational structure, the exact technical design, and how the X-ray laser would operate.
The nine signatories are the core group making up the international steering committee which will coordinate and plan the construction of the facility. Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, Russia, Slovakia, and the European Union have also signed on as observers of the project.
The fact of the matter
"Even if this declaration of intent is not yet a formal pledge, we are confident that these countries will then also participate in the construction and operation of the XFEL," noted Dr Hermann Schunck of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and chairman of the international XFEL steering committee. According to a statement by DESY, the €908 million needed to build the XFEL will be borne jointly by Germany and the partner countries.
Momentum began to build for the project in 2002, following a recommendation by the German Science Council. This attracted the interest of Germany's Federal Government which decided, in February 2003, to kick-start plans for a joint European X-ray laser to be shared by scientists from many disciplines and countries. This unique research facility, to be housed at the Helmholtz centre DESY, is scheduled to begin operating in 2012.
This valuable research infrastructure will lead to fundamental insights into a wide range of natural sciences – from physics and chemistry to materials science, geological research, and the life sciences. For industrial users, the new facility will provide interesting opportunities for developing, for instance, new nano-scale materials.
In a related development, the European Union is organising a press briefing in March to promote its Integrating Infrastructures Initiatives (I3), part of the Research Infrastructures actions in the Sixth Research Framework Programme (FP6). The event will showcase several examples of projects working towards improving access by European scientists to key research facilities, such as synchrotron and FELs, neutron scattering and muon spectroscopes, as well as virtual facilities like scientific databases and archives.