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Ahead of the game


The ESRF is tapping into new user communities in anticipation of a Europe-wide shift to more applied academic research.

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Science faces increasing pressure to justify its returns to society, be it spinning out new products or tackling issues such as energy, health and the environment. Funding agencies in many European countries are backing more applied university research, and the European Commission has launched what it dubs the Innovation Union “to ensure that ideas are turned into products and services that create growth and jobs”. The strategy will shape research to be funded under the EC’s Horizon 2020 Programme (FP8) beginning in 2014.

“The world is changing,” says ESRF business development manager Ed Mitchell, who is charged with boosting the ESRF’s industry profile and liaising with the commercial world. “Fundamental science is a luxury if it’s not giving something back to the taxpayer.”

A shift in science to more applied and innovation-driven research means new or expanded user communities for the ESRF, namely those close to industry.


Beamlines demystified

The ESRF already has significant industry use. Companies have two modes of access: proprietary, whereby users buy beam time with no obligation to publish, and public access undertaken either alone or in partnership with academic research, for which results must be published in a peer-reviewed journal. The former accounts for about 2% of the ESRF beam time, mostly taken up by large pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and amounts to €1.5–2 m per year. Less well known, however, is that an estimated one quarter of the 2000 or so public proposals submitted to the ESRF each year have an industrial component – with an even higher percentage of industry-linked proposals in the fields of structural materials, chemistry and metallurgy.

Industry and innovation-driven research ranges from the highly pragmatic, such as improving manufacturing processes, to fundamental scientific questions that often lead to publications. When a company applies for public rather than propriety access it often seeks an academic partner, for example by funding a PhD position, because it lacks necessary expert knowledge.

The ESRF wants to expand the applied and innovation-driven component of its portfolio by demystifying its beamlines for non-academics. “We should do the blue skies stuff, but do more with industry too,” explains Mitchell. “We need to get the message out to companies that the ESRF is not only relevant to universities but that European industry can also expect to benefit from our facilities and expertise.”


Docking point

Mitchell and the business development team, which comprises five people including three industrial liaison scientists, are to act as a “docking point” for industrial users, for instance helping them define which beamlines are relevant for their particular problem. “At the start we have to put in some resources, and for that we need people here who do not think in terms of our traditional group-and-beamline structure,” says research director Harald Reichert. A planned €6.5 m technology partnership between the ESRF, ILL, CEA and CNRS will help provide necessary resources.

The ESRF is in the process of defining partnerships with specific industrial and academic scientists. The first, in its very early stages, concerns techniques and methodologies for in-operando testing of nano- and microelectronics using X-rays, and is being explored in conjunction with the Institute for Semiconductor Physics in Frankfurt and the CEA LETI in Grenoble, both of which have links with numerous smaller companies in the electronics industry which may not yet be aware of the value of synchrotron radiation.

As well as making life on the beamlines easier for users unfamiliar with synchrotrons, the business development team represents the ESRF at trade fairs and is also taking its message directly to companies, such as Lafarge and Janssen. “We are being proactive because we see this shift to applied research coming and we have to be ahead of the game,” says Reichert.



Industry-linked research at the ESRF

Saarland University, MPI for Dynamics and Self-Organisation/BP:
Ultrafast tomography at ID15 used to study how an aqueous liquid moves through an oil-filled matrix when it is forced, which may help improve oil recovery rates.
Leiden University, Eindhoven University of Technology/Ceram:
Microtomography at ID19 identified link between microstructure and catalytic activity in Ni–Al alloys, helping to optimise their composition (F Devred et al. 2011 Catalysis Today 163 13).
University of Manchester/JRI Limited:
Artificial hip joints could last longer thanks to research into how the stresses within titanium alloy joints change over the lifetime of use.
Florida State University and Oxford Superconducting Technology:
Tomography at ID15 allows visualisation of troublesome bubbles in superconducting wire during fabrication (F Kametani et al. 2011 Supercond. Sci. Technol. 24 075009).
University of Manchester/Rolls Royce Aero:
Measurements at ID15 and ID31 help to improve safety/longevity of fan blades.
Montpellier University/TOTAL:
Microtomography at ID19 reveals 3D pore structure in limestone before and after injection of CO2-saturated brine, with implications for carbon sequestration (P Gouze et al. 2011 Journal of Contaminant Hydrology 120 45).
Real-time studies of the noble metal components of a vehicle exhaust catalyst reveal structure of the catalyst surface and associated chemical reactions (2008 Angew. Chem Int. Ed. 47 9303).


Matthew Chalmers


This article appeared in ESRFnews, October 2011. 

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Top image: Artificial hip joints undergoing recent tests at the ESRF’s ID31 beamline. Credit: R Moat.