Multiple Use X-Rays

X-Ray’s used to be a tool for doctors only. Now Scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York are using x-rays to figure out how grapes can survive New York winters and still produce tasty wines in the fall.



X-rays used to be a tool for doctors only.

Now, scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, are using X-rays to figure out how grapes can survive New York winters and still produce tasty wines in the fall.

Here is the story.

The first thing most people experience when they walk in the door is, they're just completely overwhelmed by the number of blinking lights, wires and the amount of equipment all over the place, and I still love it.

After all these years coming in, come down, you actually... You walk in.

You say, 'Hey, science is done here.'

♪♪ I'm Joel Brock.

I'm the director of the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source.

We go by the name CHESS.

CHESS is a large X-ray machine, not so different from what you might find in your dentist's office in some respects, but it's much, much brighter, so if you compare the analogy to a candle to the lights in a football stadium, your dentist office is the candle.

We're the football-stadium lights.

You do not want to be in this room when you have X-rays going down.

When your chest is getting X-rayed, yes, you can be in the room but not in this room.

You're going to have significant radiation poisoning.

And it's those X-rays that we use for our studies of everything from the structure of viruses for new drugs to how the metal in plane wings cracks to an uptake of minerals in plants, bioremediation, all the way out to reading ancient manuscripts, scrolls and so on that you can't unwind, and you want to read the text on the inside.

We got to go under?

Yeah, and it gets harder every year.


The synchrotron itself is 3/4 kilometer in circumference.

We go around.

It lives five stories underneath the athletic playing fields on the Cornell University campus.

It's actually a fascinating thing to go inside the tunnel and see it, and there's this very interesting psychological effect, that it just keeps repeating as you go around the corner, keep leaning around, hoping to see what's going to happen.

You keep walking.

It looks just the same, so it's kind of like a hamster wheel on its side as you go around.

You just keep on going.

You can see the curvature of the tunnel.

On the inside is the synchrotron.

On the outside is the storage ring.

For lots of people, the word 'synchrotron' is kind of mysterious.

What it really is, is a circular accelerator, particle accelerator.

So you have electrons come out of a source, and then they get zoomed around a ring really quickly.

And, of course, we have electrons going one way and positrons going the other, so there's a lot of breathing and wiggling going on, and that has to be controlled.

The convenient idea of a storage ring or a synchrotron is, if you go in a circle, you can go around many times and go faster and faster and faster.

When we're done, the particles are all going essentially the speed of light, and as they go around, they radiate X-rays.

The radiation pattern gets focused forward, so as the electrons go around, if you have a mental image of a car going around a track with its headlights on, the radiation is focused forward just like the headlights on the car, so as the particles go around and around, you can think of the little beams of light shooting forward.

We can actually do experiments where we measure the separation of atoms, so now we're talking about things which are angstroms apart.

An angstrom is 1/10th of a nanometer, so we're now 10,000 times smaller than your human hair.

♪♪ Scientists from all over the world come to use our facilities, oh, and they study things ranging from fundamental structure of biomolecules and viruses and so on to fatigue-crack growth to uptake of nutrients in plants.

So we get to learn about what other people are using X-rays for, so then that helps the whole community, so the techniques that one beamline scientist might develop for one material is useful for another beamline scientist, as well.

So it's a very collaborative environment, and everybody learns from everybody.

We can look in 3-D while we're stressing or straining these materials, and that allows us to be able to watch them as they evolve so that we can build up better models of how they work.

[ Beeping ]

We're well past the point of taking static images.

We're now watching how things happen and the processes inside of life, of manufacturing.

Yeah, the other...

So my background is in civil engineering.

I focus on developing new cement-based materials.

Over here, what I'm doing at CHESS is to understand, how does cement actually behave under compression?

This is, you know, increasingly important, and one of the... There was a major disaster a few years ago, the Deepwater Horizon, and actually, there was an explosion, and part of the contributing causes was a failure of the cement down in the shaft.

I am in material science and engineering, and my focus is in metallurgy, so I study how metals behave.

Metals specifically are one of the first materials that we actually engineered, but we don't fully understand why things break or how they're going to respond in certain environments.

How do metals behave under repeated stress?

And so the example is that everybody is familiar.

If you take a paper clip, and you bend it a few times, and the first couple of times, it's still a paper clip, but if you keep going, it just breaks in half.

Those same processes occur in all metals.

In particular, if you think about an airplane wing, every time you take on, it flexes just a little bit, and so the clear thing you don't want to have happen when you're on that airplane is to become the paper clip.

There is no other technique besides using a synchrotron X-ray to be able to probe in 3-D, in real time, how a material is evolving.

There's several similar machines around the world that we're one of five worldwide and two in the United States, and question is, why would you travel all the way to Ithaca, you know, that there are easier places to get to?

One of the things which distinguishes us is our ability to create new experiments and develop techniques into new fields.