A Different Way to Explore the Brightest Light of the Universe: Synchrotrons

The Age of Sirius: Brazil’s Fourth-Generation Synchrotron Begins to Produce Data

A technology first introduced over seventy years ago, synchrotrons are still the most powerful tools to investigate the atomic structure of materials and molecules. One of the world’s highest energy synchrotrons is already beginning to produce its first results.

Sirius is a fourth-generation synchrotron light source, a particular type of synchrotron that converts electrons into particles of light. Operated by the Brazilian Center for Research in Energy and Materials, Sirius promises an impressive array of applications, from innovations in electronics to the development of more effective drugs. But you might ask, what is synchrotron light in the first place?

Sirius Synchotron in Brazil

Sirius, a fourth-generation synchrotron light source installation in Campinas, Brazil. Photo: Bruno Peres/MCTIC.


Synchrotrons are a type of particle accelerator, the world’s largest being the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Synchrotrons use electromagnetic fields to propel charged particles to nearly the speed of light while constrained within defined beams. When subatomic particles, such as electrons, move that fast and are subjected to deviations in their paths, they lose some of their energy in the form of an incredibly bright electromagnetic radiation known as synchrotron light. Synchrotron light extends over many spectra, including infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, and X-rays.

Frequency increases and wavelength decreases for smaller objects

Frequency increases and wavelength decreases for smaller objects


The broad spectrum of synchrotron light enables multiple types of analysis, and its extreme brightness allows assessment of material structures in the tiny scale of nanometers.

There are different types of synchrotrons with various applications. Sirius can filter synchrotron light according to the operator’s desired wavelength and carry it to light lines (called experimental stations) to analyze samples. Fourth-generation synchrotrons can reveal features like the atoms and molecules that constitute matter, their chemical state and spatial organization, the atomic structure of organic and inorganic materials, and even the evolution of physical, chemical, and biological processes that happen in fractions of a second.

Synchrotrons are highly important to studies in Material Sciences, but their applications go far beyond this field.

This technology is a critical tool for scientific and technological advances in several sectors such as Physics, Agriculture, Biology, Conservation, Geology, Energy, and Health. In a broad sense, it is hard to think of any particular field of science that cannot directly or indirectly benefit from this technology.

The name Sirius references the brightest star in the night sky visible to the naked eye, a clue to the extremely bright light beams that the Sirius accelerator can generate.

The brightness of the light beams has a direct and positive effect on the quality and quantity of experiments that can be performed. Sirius is the second Brazilian particle accelerator, replacing the second-generation synchrotron UVX that was built in 1997. To illustrate the scale of this upgrade, Sirius can generate light beams up to a billion times brighter than its predecessor.

Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Photo: Christos Doudoulakis

When construction of Sirius started back in 2014, there was only one other fourth-generation synchrotron in the world, also under construction, in Sweden.

Even today, there are no more than a handful of these machines in the world. Sirius has the greatest brightness among the synchrotrons in its energy range. Its multiple beamlines are optimized for different experiments, working independently and allowing many research groups and researchers to use Sirius simultaneously. One of the beamlines even allows researchers to assess how microscopic structures of materials change under varied conditions, such as high temperatures, mechanical tension, pressure, electrical and magnetic fields, and corrosive environments.

The Brazilian National Synchrotron Light Source Laboratory, LNLS, is responsible for the design, development, construction, and operation of Sirius. Dr. Antônio José Roque da Silva, director of LNLS, explains that the electrons in Sirius are accelerated up to double the energy that UVX could achieve. This difference produces higher energy X-rays that enable more in-depth studies of materials like steel and rock by increasing the penetration capacity of the X-rays, from mere micrometers to a few centimeters. Additionally, while UVX could analyze less than half of the elements due to energy limitations, scientists will be able to study almost the complete Periodic Table with Sirius.

Researchers from 15 countries and 17 Brazilian states submitted 334 proposals for experiments to be conducted at Sirius during the first call for proposals in November and December 2022. The proposals were mainly in the fields of materials science and nanotechnology, followed by physics, chemistry, earth and the environment, and agricultural sciences. These proposals will undergo a double-blind peer review process, and selected researchers may receive financial aid to travel to Campinas to use the facilities at Sirius. The selected experiments will begin in March 2023, and another call for proposals will be made in the second quarter of 2023.

The first experiment conducted in Sirius was performed in November 2020 by Dr. Aline Nakamura and Dr. André Godoy. It caught media attention at the time, and again in September 2021, when the first article on data produced by Sirius was published in the Journal of Molecular Biology. In that experiment, the researchers assessed the atomic structure of critical proteins of the Covid-19 virus and described the maturation process of its main protease that fuels viral reproduction. Dr. Glaucius Oliva, a researcher at the Center for Innovation in Biodiversity and Drug Discovery, declared that the opportunity to use the protein crystallography beamline, Manacá, “significantly expedited” the study. Understanding the structure of the proteins facilitates the search and design of drugs that can block the virus’s action.

“Crystallography, branch of science that deals with discerning the arrangement and bonding of atoms in crystalline solids and with the geometric structure of crystal lattices. Classically, the optical properties of crystals were of value in mineralogy and chemistry for the identification of substances. Modern crystallography is largely based on the analysis of the diffraction of X-rays by crystals acting as optical gratings. Using X-ray crystallography, chemists are able to determine the internal structures and bonding arrangements of minerals and molecules, including the structures of large complex molecules, such as proteins and DNA.” Britannica.

Excited about the project, Dr. Roque da Silva stated that Sirius is not only one of the greatest success stories in Brazil, but also a hard-earned achievement of Brazilian science, stating, “Many dreamers, with a lot of dedication, have created this reality over the last 40 years.” Their goal follows the concept of an Open National Laboratory that provides access to remarkably sophisticated and unique equipment to the science, technology, and innovation community.

Together with the six beamlines that are currently open for regular operations, five new lines will receive users next year as part of the scientific commissioning phase: Mogno (X-ray micro and nano-tomography), Paineira (X-ray diffraction in polycrystals), Cedro (Circular dichroism), Sabiá (Absorption spectroscopy and soft X-ray imaging techniques), and the Sapê line (angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy), that will accept regular proposals for research using the spectrometer in “offline mode”.

As the work at Sirius goes on, the extraordinary potential of this technology materializes a little more each day, leaving us to wonder what other mysteries scientists will be able to cast its extremely bright light on.

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