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Argonne National Laboratory

Researchers rely on Advanced Photon Source to make advances in X-ray sciences

From a history-making quartet of lightbulbs powered by nuclear energy to discoveries enabled by the one of brightest light sources in the Western Hemisphere to insights into the dark corners of the universe, 75 years of Argonne research have produced breakthroughs that have changed our society and made our lives safer, healthier and more prosperous. This article is part of a 75th anniversary series describing Argonne’s history of discovery, current science program and future research thrusts. 

Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source, one of the world’s leading X-ray light sources, works like a giant X-ray microscope and is large enough to fit a major league baseball stadium inside its ring. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

The word X-ray probably brings to mind images of bones and teeth, taken by doctors and dentists. But X-ray light sources improve our daily lives in hundreds of ways. From batteries for electric cars that last longer and drive farther, to more durable airplane engines for safer air travel, to new vaccines and treatments to fight off the most deadly infectious diseases, ultrabright X-rays help us learn about the past, illuminate the present and envision the future.  

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory is home to one of the world’s leading X-ray light sources, the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a DOE Office of Science User Facility. Large enough to fit a major league baseball stadium inside, the APS was built in the 1990s and immediately helped revolutionize techniques that gave scientists new insights into materials and structures on an atomic scale. The X-rays it generates are a billion times brighter than the ones used to find cracks in bones and cavities in teeth. These X-rays find even the most microscopic defects in metals, the tiniest changes in chemical reactions, and the smallest vulnerabilities in viral proteins. The APS played a foundational role in the development of COVID-19 vaccines, and much of what scientists learned about the virus’s protein structures came from APS data. The X-rays of the APS can even allow scientists to see inside the wrappings of ancient mummies, without needing to unravel them.

Each year, more than 5,500 researchers use the APS, publishing more than 2,000 scientific journal articles about their discoveries. Over the next few years, the APS will undergo a massive upgrade that will increase the brightness of its X-ray beams by up to 500 times. This will keep the APS at the forefront of global X-ray science and enable scientists from around the world to continue making the breakthroughs and innovations that enhance and brighten our lives.