Ju-Chen Chia, researcher in SIPS, examines plant specimens with Louisa Smieska, XLEAP beamline scientist, in Weill Hall.

CHESS receives $20M from NSF for new X-ray beamline

The U.S. National Science Foundation has awarded the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) $20 million to build a new precision X-ray beamline for research on biological and environmental systems.

The X-rays for Life, Environmental, Agriculture and Plant sciences (XLEAP) beamline will be an important resource for the U.S. scientific community, filling a need for X-ray fluorescence-based technology supporting biological and biogeochemical research.

“We are thrilled to receive this funding from the NSF for the XLEAP beamline,” said Joel Brock, CHESS director. “This investment is not only a significant step forward for CHESS but also highlights the importance of advancing precision X-ray studies in the realm of agriculture, biology and environmental sciences.

“XLEAP will be a game-changer,” Brock said, “allowing researchers to explore live soil and plant systems under controlled growth conditions, paving the way for groundbreaking discoveries.”

Scientists at CHESS hope to develop a better understanding of the carbon cycle, which could lead to the development of safer, more nutritious crops.

“This $20 million federal investment will supercharge Cornell’s cutting-edge CHESS lab and bring us to the next frontier of understanding the elemental and microscopic details of organisms,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY). “When CHESS faced major cuts in federal support 10 years ago, I fought tooth and nail to ensure its pioneering research and hundreds of good-paying jobs would remain here in upstate New York. Now this latest boost in federal investment shows that CHESS is top of its class not just in America, but the world.

“The addition of the new XLEAP beamline could not be in better hands at CHESS,” Schumer said, “and is just the latest in showing how Ithaca is leading the way in making upstate New York a global leader in research and technology.”

“XLEAP is a perfect example of enabling technology that allows for fundamental research that creates knowledge that can be put to use addressing societal challenges," said Susan Marqusee, NSF assistant director for biological sciences. “NSF is proud to support this key infrastructure that holds the potential to help advance the bioeconomy, build a resilient planet, and more.”

“X-rays are a really powerful tool for visualizing the chemical composition of complex structures like soils and plants,” said Louisa Smieska, XLEAP beamline scientist. “XLEAP is special because it will allow researchers to study live soil and plant systems in controlled growth conditions, not only in a steady state, but when we expose those systems to changes, such as the nutrients available, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, or adding nanoparticles, fungi, bacteria, or microplastics.”

By combining state-of-the-art technology and expertise at CHESS with other world-class research facilities at Cornell, XLEAP will aid in the development of tools suited to answer questions of fundamental biology, biomedical sciences, geology, environmental science, materials science and cultural heritage.

One of the unique capabilities of the XLEAP beamline will be a custom plant-growth chamber and rhizosphere environment, allowing for in situ X-ray measurements of live tissues. On-campus access to the SIPS plant growth facilities will allow researchers to prepare their specimens locally, fully leveraging Cornell’s long-standing expertise in plant sciences.

“This project’s science priorities have broad-reaching societal impacts, such as contributing to more resilient crops, optimizing nanoscience treatments for agriculture, improving soil chemistry and addressing rare earth element cycling,” Brock said. “These efforts will be shared through international conferences and workshops, enhancing Cornell’s mission of knowledge dissemination.”

The new beamline’s sustainability focus will be bolstered by its strong connections to numerous other research units across the university. Three Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability fellows will serve as principal investigators or co-principal investigators on the project: Brock; Smieska; and Olena Vatamaniuk, professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences and Plant Biology sections in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The award includes a partnership with the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), aimed at engaging graduate students in various aspects of the project, and providing them with scientific and project management training. UTEP also brings expertise in nanoparticle-plant interactions, contributing to potential research on how plants take up nanoparticles – for better or worse.

“While we have plenty of X-ray users at CHESS, the pipeline for beamline scientists – the people that know how to build an actual beamline – is drying up,” Brock said. “XLEAP will not just expand the lab, it will also expand the network of experts of the underpinnings of the technology. That is why the education of undergraduates, grad students and postdocs is a major part of this project.”

The beamline will be installed in CHESS’s new experimental hall, Wilson West, which is slated to open in 2025.

The funding is from the NSF’s Mid-scale Research Infrastructure-1 program, which supports projects between $4 million and $20 million that enable advances in scientific and engineering fields, as well as STEM education, by creating new research capabilities and training early-career researchers in the development, design, and construction of cutting-edge infrastructure.

Susan Newman is a science communicator for the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source.

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