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New European XFEL beamline will be sovereign UK territory

01 Apr 2018


Soft border for soft X-rays: the physicist in the foreground is in the British sector of BreXFEL, while the other scientist is in Germany (Courtesy: European XFEL)

A new beamline under construction at the European X-ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL) has been designated sovereign UK territory. Dubbed BreXFEL, the beamline will allow British scientists to continue to use the European XFEL in Hamburg, Germany after the UK leaves the EU. The announcement comes just two weeks after the UK upped its involvement in European XFEL by becoming a member state.

The European XFEL produces coherent pulses of X-rays that have a wide range of applications including physics, material science and chemistry. The UK has been involved with the design, construction and operation of the facility for over a decade. However, the UK’s 2016 decision to leave the EU could mean that British scientists will have to go through the lengthy and expensive process of obtaining German visas to work at the facility.

Dedicated link

The UK already plans to install a dedicated fibre link between Hamburg and the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire so that scientists can run experiments without having to leave the UK. “That was a good start,” says Kevin Keegan of the University of Hamburg, “but it would be much better if British scientists could work freely at the facility after Brexit”.

Keegan, who transferred to Hamburg from the University of Liverpool in 1977, says that he made a “hair-raising discovery” last year. “Derelict land to the south of the XFEL used to be a British Army base,” he explains. “It was sovereign British territory and in an oversight, was never ceded back to Germany when demolished in 2005”.

After an intense lobbying effort, UK scientists convinced the German and British governments to build a new UK-only beamline that will initially house one experiment: the Femtosecond Array Raman Goniometer Experiment (FARaGE). There is scope for a further instrument and the leading design is the Brilliant Optical Resonance Imaging Spectrometer (BORIS). Yet scientists are concerned about its running costs, which could be as much as £350m per week.

Living quarters

BreXFEL will have living quarters for British scientists as well as a Budgens supermarket and a Wetherspoon pub. “It will be a bit like a Costa Blanca on the Elbe,” says Leigh Ving, who is head of Exiting the EU at UK Research and Innovation.

At the moment it is unclear if there will be tariffs on the X-rays as they cross from Germany to the UK

Leigh Ving, UKRI

However, she also points out that several important issues remain unresolved: “At the moment it is unclear if there will be tariffs on the X-rays as they cross from Germany to the UK”. “We had hoped that BreXFEL could remain in the customs union, but that was vetoed by Belgium”.


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