Super bright X-ray lets doctors see the atoms inside viruses

This synchrotron creates x-ray beams 10 trillion times brighter than those found in your doctor’s office.

A massive ring-shaped machine in France is now generating x-ray beams 10 trillion times brighter than those doctors use to image broken bones.

Researchers have already used this powerful device, dubbed the Extremely Brilliant Source (EBS), to study the inner workings of the novel coronavirus — and in the future, it could give scientists an unprecedented look at everything from human organs to ancient artifacts.

X-Ray Imaging 101

X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation, just like sunlight, but they have an energy level that lets them pass through substances that reflect ordinary light. This is what makes them so useful for medical imaging.

If a doctor wants to get a look at a patient’s broken finger, for example, they can position the hand in front of something that detects x-rays (usually a kind of film) and then point the rays at it.

The x-rays will pass easily through the less dense parts of the hand (the flesh) but have a harder time passing through the denser parts (the bones) — similar to how you might make a shadow puppet appear on a wall.

France’s Synchrotron

The EBS is a type of device called a synchrotron. It produces x-ray beams far brighter than those created by the standard medical x-ray device, which allows for far more detailed images.

To create these x-rays, the EBS accelerates electrons to near light speed. At that point, the particles emit the incredibly bright x-ray beams, which can then be captured by a detector and used to produce incredibly detailed images of the interiors of objects.

A synchrotron revealed the interiors of dinosaur eggs and a crocodile mummy.

If a doctor used these x-rays to image a person’s hand, they wouldn’t just be able to see the bones — they’d be able to see each atom in the patient’s blood cells. They’d also kill the patient, as the level of radiation in the x-rays would be fatal.

Still, that doesn’t mean the EBS’s ultra-bright x-rays won’t be a boon for healthcare — researchers are already using them to study both the coronavirus itself and lung tissue damaged by it.

Researchers used the x-ray beams produced by the EBS’s predecessor to get an inside peak at everything from a 2,000-year-old mummified crocodile to a fossilized dinosaur egg, so there’s no telling what insights could be ahead of us now that the new synchrotron is operational.

We’d love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Brick batteries may be a key to decarbonizing heavy industry
By storing renewable energy as heat in brick “batteries,” Rondo Energy believes they can decarbonize heavy industry.
The surprising history of how electric vehicles have played the long game and won 
The electric vehicle’s environmental credentials might give them a final push to win the long game over traditional cars.
This startup wants to build a radically powerful new kind of wind turbine
Norwegian startup World Wide Wind wants to build offshore wind turbines based on a completely different design from traditional models.
Long COVID: Self-targeted immune attacks may lurk behind it
Researchers are working to get a more complete understanding of the cells and antibodies behind long COVID.
How NASA is planning to prevent a Martian plague 
When Mars samples arrive, they may carry more than knowledge. To offset the chance of a Martian pandemic, NASA is learning to contain a Red Planet plague.
Up Next
Subscribe to Freethink for more great stories