Physicists’ brightest light

Nightless nights or midnight sun season is now on in the northern Finland, but physicists at Nano and molecular systems research unit (NANOMO) can enjoy nights full of light throughout the year.

At NANOMO, we use extremely bright light sources, synchrotrons, in our research. Synchrotron radiation facilities are particle accelerators especially optimised to produce electromagnetic radiation i.e., light – 24 hours per day! Properties of synchrotron light are tailored to meet the needs of many different research fields: physics, biology, chemistry, materials science, cultural heritage, medical science…
Magnet used in synchrotron research

In just a couple of recent years, NANOMO has demonstrated the power of synchrotron light in plethora of high impact internationally leading works; the light has been shed on flies (to study their vision), steels (to study their strength), animal tissues (to study diseases), sea salt aerosols (to study climate), novel cements (to study their formation) and photocatalysts (to study their performance). It is evident that synchrotron radiation -based research does not rely just on a single technique – in contrast, it is like a whole toolbox full of different keys, wrenches, hammers, and screwdrivers. The trick is to choose the right tool for the right job, or preferably, to use multiple tools to investigate different facets of the same research question.

Synchrotron techniques reveal material properties at atomic and molecular level. This level of detail is needed when we want to learn from fundamental processes behind the properties observed. For example, spectroscopic techniques are excellent in revealing molecular bonding in chemistry while scattering techniques reveal how these molecules are organized to form a solid. These can be combined to spatial imaging, forming a powerful visualization of chemical structures down to nanometer scale.

The available operando and in-situ techniques reveal stages and intermediates of processes while they happen, e.g., photocatalytes of hydrogen production in action, battery cell chemistry in charging/recharging process, phase changing of steel during heating cycle. These techniques are becoming essential for researchers in various fields, and many companies are also utilizing them in their research.

Synchrotron radiation -based research requires team effort and succeeding together at every level. Our scientific problems often stem from grand multidisciplinary challenges such as sustainable and affordable energy production or health in the changing climate. Together with experts of different fields, we define physical observables and plan the actual experimental work. This requires collaboration with e.g., accelerator physicists, cryotechnicians, IT people, chemical safety officers, and vacuum technicians of synchrotron facilities to ensure the success of the campaigns. The measurement time is 2–5 times overbooked and the operation of a single experiment to the facility is in the order of 5000 € per day, thus careful planning before and after the campaign is essential to reach the success.  

Since the experiments run 24 hours per day, no one can perform the experiment alone. Often the campaigns are international collaborations, and early-stage researchers learn to take responsibility during their work shifts. After the experiment begins an intense data analysis period, often in collaboration with theoreticians, which support the findings with their theoretical modelling. Finally, we have an answer – often something that we did not even have in mind in the first place! Along with new results we often also have created new questions awaiting to be answered. Scientific research requires a lot of perseverance, openness to new ideas and courage to go out of your comfort zone.


Professor Marko Huttula is the head of the Nano and Molecular Systems research unit. His research focuses on applications of synchrotron radiation in multidisciplinary research. His research work can be found in a schoolbook and has led to patents.

Minna Patanen works as an associate professor (tenure track) in the Nano and Molecular Systems research unit. Her research focuses on advanced material characterization techniques. She also teaches in the physics degree programme and was voted as the lecturer of the year 2021.