Long-extinct insects, corroded ancient bronzes, parchments too delicate to unroll--these are some of the ancient objects that the world's most advanced x-ray facilities, including ESRF, are bringing to light. The x-rays at a synchrotron pick up speed by flying around a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, hundreds of meters in circumference. That results in an extremely bright, highly focused beam, which a computer processes into an ultrahigh-resolution image, all without damaging the sample.
So what other secrets from the past are emerging?
Meanwhile, the Diamond synchrotron in Didcot, Oxfordshire, is being upgraded to handle the largest samples yet. It should be operating by spring 2010 and will be able to look for cracks in aircraft turbines. "We've never been able to look at anything that big before," says Diamond's Jen Hiller, who has used the technology to look at ancient scrolls.
One of the first uses of the big new stage at Diamond will be a study of a set of half-life-sized Egyptian bronzes in the British Museum (see picture). The synchrotron's bright rays will show museum conservators if the figures have been repaired--if they have all their "original bits," says Hiller. Archaeologists use the technique, too; a synchrotron can search a messy chunk of excavated mud for treasure. And the technology is constantly improving, she says. "We get better at it every year."