Giant French X-ray machine to provide insight into Covid

A huge X-ray-generating machine, built inside an 844-metre ringed tunnel in France, could provide scientific insight into coronavirus.

2 October 2020
The X-ray machine that is shining a light on coronavirus in France. Photo: ESRF. stef CandéX-ray machine shines a light on coronavirus in France. Photo: ESRF. stef Candé
By Connexion Journalist

Built in south east France, it is the fourth-generation European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF-Extremely Brilliant Source, to give it its official name), and the first of its kind in the world. The machine can generate X-ray beams 100 times brighter than its predecessor and 10 trillion times brighter than ordinary medical X-rays found in hospitals.

It replaces the third-generation synchrotron, which was located inside the same tunnel and closed in 2018. Delphine Chenevier, head of communication at the ESRF, said we should imagine it like a “super microscope”. It allows scientists to analyse matter at a nano-level and can be used, for example, to perform a virtual autopsy of a mummy while it is still in a sarcophagus, or create a 3D scan of a tyrannosaurus rex skull, down to the growth lines of its teeth.

It can also be used to better understand the processes of infections, such as coronavirus. “We have some ongoing papers, so I can’t say a lot about that,” Ms Chenevier told Connexion. She did say, though, that some scientists are looking at proteins of the virus and trying to understand how they interact with human cells. 

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ESRF Credit ESRF. stef Candé
ESRF Credit ESRF. stef Candé

“We are going deep into the matter,” she said. Helmut Dosch, vice-chair of the ESRF, said the technology “opens the door to revolutionary new insights into the molecular machinery of complex materials and biological systems. This is the new tool for the design of future technologies and better drugs, and thus of highest relevance for the future of the European society,” he said. 

The synchrotron, located in Grenoble, is funded by 22 countries, including France and the UK. Ms Chenevier said that 10,000 scientists come to use the technology for various projects every year. Scientists can use it for free and are awarded access based on scientific merit.

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