From The DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory: “Researchers aim X-rays at century-old plant secretions for insight into Aboriginal Australian cultural heritage”

From The DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

May 26, 2022
David Krause

By revealing the chemistry of plant secretions, or exudates, these studies build a basis for better understanding and conserving art and tools made with plant materials.

For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal Australians have created some of the world’s most striking artworks. Today their work continues long lines of ancestral traditions, stories of the past and connections to current cultural landscapes, which is why researchers are keen on better understanding and preserving the cultural heritage within.

In particular, knowing the chemical composition of pigments and binders that Aboriginal Australian artists employ could allow archaeological scientists and art conservators to identify these materials in important cultural heritage objects. Now, researchers are turning to X-ray science to help reveal the composition of the materials used in Aboriginal Australian cultural heritage – starting with the analysis of century-old samples of plant secretions, or exudates.

Aboriginal Australians continue to use plant exudates, such as resins and gums, to create rock and bark paintings and for practical applications, such as hafting stone points to handles. But just what these plant materials are made of is not well known.

Century-old plant exudate samples in amber jars. Researchers mapped the chemistries of these samples using high-energy photons. Scientists can analyze other historical artifact chemistries by applying this technique in the future. (Flinders University, South Australia, Kaurna Country)

Therefore, scientists from six universities and laboratories around the world turned to high-energy X-rays at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) [below] at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the synchrotron SOLEIL in France.

Aerial view of Synchrotron SOLEIL site. Credit: C. Kermarrec – SOLEIL.

The team aimed X-rays at 10 well-preserved plant exudate samples from the native Australian genera Eucalyptus, Callitris, Xanthorrhoea and Acacia. The samples had been collected more than a century ago and held in various institutions in South Australia.

The results of their study were clearer and more profound than expected.

“We got the breakthrough data we had hoped for,” said Uwe Bergmann, physicist at University of Wisconsin-Madison and former SLAC scientist who develops new X-ray methods. “For the first time, we were able to see the molecular structure of a well-preserved collection of native Australian plant samples, which might allow us to discover their existence in other important cultural heritage objects.”

Researchers today published their results in PNAS.

Looking below the surface

Over time, the surface of plant exudates can change as the materials age. Even if these changes are just nanometers thick, they can still block the view underneath.

“We had to see into the bulk of the material beneath this top layer or we’d have no new information about the plant exudates,” SSRL Lead Scientist Dimosthenis Sokaras said.

Conventionally, molecules with carbon and oxygen are studied with lower-energy, so-called “soft” X-rays, that would not be able to penetrate through the debris layer. For this study, researchers sent high-energy X-ray photons, called “hard” X-rays, into the sample. The photons squeezed past foggy top layers and into the sample’s elemental arrangements beneath. Hard X-rays don’t get stuck in the surface, whereas soft X-rays do, Sokaras said.

Close up of Xanthorrhoea spike with exudate on the Flinders University campus in Adelaide, South Australia. Xanthorrhoea is also colloquially called “grass tree” or “yakka”. (Flinders University, South Australia, Kaurna Country)

Once inside, the high-energy photons scattered off of the plant exudate’s elements and were captured by a large array of perfectly aligned, silicon crystals at SSRL. The crystals filtered out only the scattered X-rays of one specific wavelength and funneled them into a small detector, kind of like how a kitchen sink funnels water drops down its drain.

Next, the team matched the wavelength difference between the incident and scattered photons to the energy levels of a plant exudate’s carbon and oxygen, providing the detailed molecular information about the unique Australian samples.

A path for the future

Understanding the chemistries of each plant exudate will allow for a better understanding of identification and conservation approaches of Aboriginal Australian art and tools, Rafaella Georgiou, a physicist at the University of Paris-Saclay and Synchrotron SOLEIL, said.

“Now we can go ahead and study other organic materials of cultural importance using this powerful X-ray technique,” she said.

Researchers hope that people who work in cultural heritage analysis will see this powerful synchrotron radiation technique as a valuable method for determining the chemistries of their samples.

“We want to reach out to that scientific community and say, ‘Look, if you want to learn something about your cultural heritage samples, you can come to synchrotrons like SSRL,’” Bergmann said.

SSRL is a DOE Office of Science user facility. In addition to SSRL, parts of this research were carried out at SOLEIL in France and three laboratories of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (PPSM, IPANEMA, IMPMC). The University of Pisa, the Université Paris-Saclay, the University of Melbourne, Flinders University, the Australian Synchrotron International Synchrotron Access Program, and other organizations also supported this research.

See the full article here .

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The DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory originally named Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, is a Department of Energy National Laboratory operated by Stanford University under the programmatic direction of the Department of Energy Office of Science and located in Menlo Park, California. It is the site of the Stanford Linear Accelerator, a 3.2 kilometer (2-mile) linear accelerator constructed in 1966 and shut down in the 2000s, which could accelerate electrons to energies of 50 GeV.
Today SLAC research centers on a broad program in atomic and solid-state physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine using X-rays from synchrotron radiation and a free-electron laser as well as experimental and theoretical research in elementary particle physics, astroparticle physics, and cosmology.

Founded in 1962 as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, the facility is located on 172 hectares (426 acres) of Stanford University-owned land on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, California—just west of the University’s main campus. The main accelerator is 3.2 kilometers (2 mi) long—the longest linear accelerator in the world—and has been operational since 1966.

Research at SLAC has produced three Nobel Prizes in Physics

1976: The charm quark—see J/ψ meson
1990: Quark structure inside protons and neutrons
1995: The tau lepton

SLAC’s meeting facilities also provided a venue for the Homebrew Computer Club and other pioneers of the home computer revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1984 the laboratory was named an ASME National Historic Engineering Landmark and an IEEE Milestone.

SLAC developed and, in December 1991, began hosting the first World Wide Web server outside of Europe.

In the early-to-mid 1990s, the Stanford Linear Collider (SLC) investigated the properties of the Z boson using the Stanford Large Detector [below].

As of 2005, SLAC employed over 1,000 people, some 150 of whom were physicists with doctorate degrees, and served over 3,000 visiting researchers yearly, operating particle accelerators for high-energy physics and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL) [below] for synchrotron light radiation research, which was “indispensable” in the research leading to the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Stanford Professor Roger D. Kornberg.

In October 2008, the Department of Energy announced that the center’s name would be changed to SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The reasons given include a better representation of the new direction of the lab and the ability to trademark the laboratory’s name. Stanford University had legally opposed the Department of Energy’s attempt to trademark “Stanford Linear Accelerator Center”.

In March 2009, it was announced that the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory was to receive $68.3 million in Recovery Act Funding to be disbursed by Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

In October 2016, Bits and Watts launched as a collaboration between SLAC and Stanford University to design “better, greener electric grids”. SLAC later pulled out over concerns about an industry partner, the state-owned Chinese electric utility.


The main accelerator was an RF linear accelerator that accelerated electrons and positrons up to 50 GeV. At 3.2 km (2.0 mi) long, the accelerator was the longest linear accelerator in the world, and was claimed to be “the world’s most straight object.” until 2017 when the European x-ray free electron laser opened. The main accelerator is buried 9 m (30 ft) below ground and passes underneath Interstate Highway 280. The above-ground klystron gallery atop the beamline, was the longest building in the United States until the LIGO project’s twin interferometers were completed in 1999. It is easily distinguishable from the air and is marked as a visual waypoint on aeronautical charts.

A portion of the original linear accelerator is now part of the Linac Coherent Light Source [below].

Stanford Linear Collider

The Stanford Linear Collider was a linear accelerator that collided electrons and positrons at SLAC. The center of mass energy was about 90 GeV, equal to the mass of the Z boson, which the accelerator was designed to study. Grad student Barrett D. Milliken discovered the first Z event on 12 April 1989 while poring over the previous day’s computer data from the Mark II detector. The bulk of the data was collected by the SLAC Large Detector, which came online in 1991. Although largely overshadowed by the Large Electron–Positron Collider at CERN, which began running in 1989, the highly polarized electron beam at SLC (close to 80%) made certain unique measurements possible, such as parity violation in Z Boson-b quark coupling.

Presently no beam enters the south and north arcs in the machine, which leads to the Final Focus, therefore this section is mothballed to run beam into the PEP2 section from the beam switchyard.

The SLAC Large Detector (SLD) was the main detector for the Stanford Linear Collider. It was designed primarily to detect Z bosons produced by the accelerator’s electron-positron collisions. Built in 1991, the SLD operated from 1992 to 1998.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory Large Detector


PEP (Positron-Electron Project) began operation in 1980, with center-of-mass energies up to 29 GeV. At its apex, PEP had five large particle detectors in operation, as well as a sixth smaller detector. About 300 researchers made used of PEP. PEP stopped operating in 1990, and PEP-II began construction in 1994.


From 1999 to 2008, the main purpose of the linear accelerator was to inject electrons and positrons into the PEP-II accelerator, an electron-positron collider with a pair of storage rings 2.2 km (1.4 mi) in circumference. PEP-II was host to the BaBar experiment, one of the so-called B-Factory experiments studying charge-parity symmetry.

SLAC National Accelerator LaboratoryBaBar

SLAC National Accelerator LaboratorySSRL

Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope

SLAC plays a primary role in the mission and operation of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, launched in August 2008. The principal scientific objectives of this mission are:

To understand the mechanisms of particle acceleration in AGNs, pulsars, and SNRs.
To resolve the gamma-ray sky: unidentified sources and diffuse emission.
To determine the high-energy behavior of gamma-ray bursts and transients.
To probe dark matter and fundamental physics.

National Aeronautics and Space AdministrationFermi Large Area Telescope

National Aeronautics and Space AdministrationFermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope.


KIPAC campus

The Stanford PULSE Institute (PULSE) is a Stanford Independent Laboratory located in the Central Laboratory at SLAC. PULSE was created by Stanford in 2005 to help Stanford faculty and SLAC scientists develop ultrafast x-ray research at LCLS.

The Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS)[below] is a free electron laser facility located at SLAC. The LCLS is partially a reconstruction of the last 1/3 of the original linear accelerator at SLAC, and can deliver extremely intense x-ray radiation for research in a number of areas. It achieved first lasing in April 2009.

The laser produces hard X-rays, 10^9 times the relative brightness of traditional synchrotron sources and is the most powerful x-ray source in the world. LCLS enables a variety of new experiments and provides enhancements for existing experimental methods. Often, x-rays are used to take “snapshots” of objects at the atomic level before obliterating samples. The laser’s wavelength, ranging from 6.2 to 0.13 nm (200 to 9500 electron volts (eV)) is similar to the width of an atom, providing extremely detailed information that was previously unattainable. Additionally, the laser is capable of capturing images with a “shutter speed” measured in femtoseconds, or million-billionths of a second, necessary because the intensity of the beam is often high enough so that the sample explodes on the femtosecond timescale.

The LCLS-II [below] project is to provide a major upgrade to LCLS by adding two new X-ray laser beams. The new system will utilize the 500 m (1,600 ft) of existing tunnel to add a new superconducting accelerator at 4 GeV and two new sets of undulators that will increase the available energy range of LCLS. The advancement from the discoveries using this new capabilities may include new drugs, next-generation computers, and new materials.


In 2012, the first two-thirds (~2 km) of the original SLAC LINAC were recommissioned for a new user facility, the Facility for Advanced Accelerator Experimental Tests (FACET). This facility was capable of delivering 20 GeV, 3 nC electron (and positron) beams with short bunch lengths and small spot sizes, ideal for beam-driven plasma acceleration studies. The facility ended operations in 2016 for the constructions of LCLS-II which will occupy the first third of the SLAC LINAC. The FACET-II project will re-establish electron and positron beams in the middle third of the LINAC for the continuation of beam-driven plasma acceleration studies in 2019.

SLAC National Accelerator LaboratoryFACET

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory FACET-II upgrading its Facility for Advanced Accelerator Experimental Tests (FACET) – a test bed for new technologies that could revolutionize the way we build particle accelerators.

The Next Linear Collider Test Accelerator (NLCTA) is a 60-120 MeV high-brightness electron beam linear accelerator used for experiments on advanced beam manipulation and acceleration techniques. It is located at SLAC’s end station B

SLAC National Accelerator LaboratoryNext Linear Collider Test Accelerator (NLCTA)

DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory campus

SLAC National Accelerator LaboratoryLCLS

SLAC National Accelerator LaboratoryLCLS II projected view

Magnets called undulators stretch roughly 100 meters down a tunnel at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, with one side (right) producing hard x-rays and the other soft x-rays.

SSRL and LCLS are DOE Office of Science user facilities.