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SMART*LIGHT: portable source of extremely high-intensity x-rays for art research

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The aim of the Smart*Light research project is to develop a ‘tabletop synchrotron’, a compact and with adjustable wavelengths. For this research, a consortium of twelve organisations in the Netherlands and Flanders has received a subsidy of 2.85 million euros from the European Regional Development Fund (Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland). Smart*Light will eventually have applications in medical diagnostics, in research laboratories for the development of new materials and in museums for inspecting important artworks.

X-ray technology

Screening patients for breast cancer, checking welding joints in pipelines and inspecting the chemical condition of artworks are usually conducted using the same ‘classical’ X-ray technology, developed in the nineteenth century. Because X-rays have a fairly low intensity and are not adjustable, it is only possible to record a single moment in time and in many cases the resulting information is insufficiently detailed. For advanced applications, such as the development of high-tech materials and new drugs,  ‘coherent’ high-intensity X-rays are indispensible. These high-intensity X-rays are currently produced in synchrotrons, large accelerators in which electrons move through a 1-km-long tube at almost the speed of light. These synchrotron rays allow changes in materials to be charted in great detail in time and space. However, the limited availability of high-energy synchrotron rays places great limitations on research. For many instances where an image is needed, travelling to a synchrotron (all of which are outside the Benelux area) is impossible.

Collision of laser and electrons

Smart*Light employs new accelerator technology that translates laser light into intense and coherent X-rays by forcing the laser light to collide – via ‘inverse Compton scattering’ – with a high-energy bundle of electrons. These rays enable state-of-the-art analyses that are of value to various social sectors. Smart*Light’s aim is not to replace existing synchrotron facilities but to provide a compact alternative so that users will not be restricted by the limited time slots available at larger synchrotrons.

Material research and hidden layers in paintings

An important advantage of the new synchrotron is its mobile character: the entire set-up will be only four metres long, enabling it to be used in any lab. The instrument can be delivered to the site of an especially complex scenario, rather than vice versa, so that, for example, corrosion in ships can be detected and prevented. Smart*Light will eventually be available for medical diagnostics in hospitals and for research into masterpieces by artists such Bruegel, Rubens and Vermeer in museums. The ability to test the chemical composition of a painting layer by layer, for example, is of importance not only in the conservation of paintings but also in research into authenticity.

Cross-border partnership

The project brings together specialists from universities, companies, museums and research institutes. The tabletop synchrotron is being built at TU Eindhoven, and the associated detection techniques, such as X-ray diffraction, X-ray fluorescence and X-ray tomography, are being developed by the universities of Antwerp and Ghent. TU Delft is focussing on the instrument’s functionality in relation to materials research and fine art applications. Other institutions involved include VDL ETG BV, Agfa Healthcare, Erasmus MC, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, TI-COAST, XRE NV, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and the Materials Innovation Institute. TU Delft (MSE department in the 3ME faculty) is managing the project.

Interreg Flanders-Netherlands

Interreg Flanders-Netherlands subsidises collaborative projects for smart, green and inclusive growth. The cross-border nature of an Interreg project is essential: they involve intensive collaboration between partners on both sides of the border, in which all partners arrange for supplementary funding. Interreg is funded by the European Regional Development Fund. Read more on the Interreg website.

 

Contact persons at TU Delft: Dr Hessel Castricum, project leader and Prof. Dr Joris Dik, professor of Materials in Art & Archaeology

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