Beams to transform photon science with €2 million ERC funding

Illustration, based on simulations, of the Trojan horse technique for the production of high-energy electron beams. Image by Thomas Heinemann/University of Strathclyde

A Professor of Physics at the University of Strathclyde has been awarded more than €2 million by the European Research Council (ERC), for a project aiming to develop next-generation plasma-based electron beam sources for photon science and high-energy physics.

The project, named NeXource, led by Professor Bernhard Hidding, is one of around 300 successful applications for grants from the prestigious ERC’s Consolidator Grant programme, from a total of 2453 submissions.

The funding will enable Professor Hidding and his team to develop electron beam sources that are potentially 100,000 times brighter than conventional sources. Such bright electron beams are required to power x-ray lasers as enabling tools for photon science, as they allow making snapshots of ultrafast molecular and atomic processes.

Professor Hidding said: “Plasma wakefield accelerator devices have electric fields 1000 times stronger than those of state-of-the-art accelerators and are far smaller – measured in metres rather than kilometres.

“The quality and controllability of electrons produced by such accelerators so far is limited. NeXource will exploit the huge electric plasma wakefields as ultrabright electron source by realizing laser-based plasma photocathodes. This allows realization of tunable beam brightness transformers capable of improving output beam levels of emittance and brightness by orders of magnitude.

“The aim, with the use of this ERC Consolidator Grant, is to provide a basis to transform photon science by creating entirely new capabilities and boosting capacities arising from such electron beams. On the longer term, such brightness transformers could become accessible even at university-scale labs.”

ERC Consolidator Grants are awarded to outstanding researchers of any nationality and age, with at least seven and up to 12 years of experience after PhD, and a scientific track record showing great promise.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: "Knowledge developed in these new projects will allow us to understand the challenges we face at a more fundamental level, and may provide us with breakthroughs and innovations that we haven’t even imagined.”

Strathclyde has protected the intellectual property underlying the NeXource project and is commercialising the technology in collaboration with industry.

Strathclyde is the base for the Scottish Centre for the Application of Plasma-Based Accelerators (SCAPA), an initiative of the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA). Much of SCAPA’s research has applications in health and wellbeing, one of the University’s strategic themes and a major focus of the Glasgow City Innovation District, which is transforming the way academia, business and industry collaborate to bring competitive advantage to Scotland. The Innovation District Model, which is recognised for improving productivity, creating jobs and attracting inward investment in several cities around the globe – brings together researchers and high-growth firms with technology and creative start-ups, to work side-by-side in vibrant, walkable innovation communities.

Strathclyde was named UK University of the Year in the 2019 Times Higher Education Awards and Scottish University of the Year in the 2020 Sunday Times Good University Guide.