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New X-Rays 10 Million Times Stronger : Research: Scientists are set to unveil a beam source trillions of times more powerful than the flashes of radiation Roentgen first observed 100 years ago.

November 05, 1995|BRIAN BERGSTEIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ARGONNE, Ill. — One evening in November, 1895, bursts of light seared through Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen's dark laboratory and changed the world.

Only a few months after Roentgen dubbed the mysterious beams X-rays, their ability to pierce inside things allowed doctors to stop guessing about whether patients' bones were broken or where bullets had lodged in soldiers' bodies.

Over the next 100 years, X-rays spawned innumerable products, including radiation therapy for cancer, airport baggage scanners, fabrics that don't fade, stronger welding techniques and nuclear weapons.

Now, scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory are ready to unveil their anniversary present: a new X-ray source trillions of times more powerful than the flashes of radiation Roentgen first observed.

More than 600 physicists and researchers from all over the world came to Argonne, 30 miles southwest of Chicago, recently for lectures on the history of X-rays and a tour of the Advanced Photon Source, a series of machines that will create the most brilliant X-ray beams ever when it is up and running next year, said its director, David Moncton.

An X-ray has a shorter wavelength than visible light, making it invisible to the human eye and able to penetrate into places that visible light bounces off.

The $467-million Argonne X-ray is far too powerful to be used on people's teeth and bones. A quarter-mile in diameter, it will produce X-ray radiation 10 million times stronger than that regularly used by dentists and doctors.

Thirty-seven companies and 104 universities have invested in the project and plan to use it for their research.

Researchers hope to use it to photograph chemical processes in action. Biologists, for example, could use the beams to study how molecules of HIV reproduce inside human genes. That information is crucial in designing new drugs that could manipulate chemical reactions in the body.

The most dramatic impact of X-rays has come in the understanding of atoms, the essential units of the universe. Scientists plan to use the Argonne X-ray to study how physical properties of certain substances can be traced to their atomic structure.

All those plans essentially arise out of X-ray research begun by Roentgen, who won the first Nobel Prize for physics in 1901.

Albert Wattenberg, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois, said news of Roentgen's X-ray photographs quickly spread worldwide after an article about them in a Vienna newspaper on Jan. 6, 1896.

Roentgen had discovered X-rays accidentally, while performing an experiment on electrically charged particles inside a vacuum tube. The invisible rays emitted by the particles illuminated chemically treated paper Roentgen just happened to have near him as he worked.

Because physicists typically had the equipment Roentgen used, doctors were able to begin trying to harness the powerful X-rays only two weeks after reading of Roentgen's work, Wattenberg said.

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