Synchrotron radiation is electromagnetic radiation, similar to cyclotron radiation, but generated by the acceleration of ultrarelativistic (i.e., moving near the speed of light) charged particles through magnetic fields. This may be achieved artificially by storage rings in a synchrotron, or naturally by fast moving electrons moving through magnetic fields in space. The radiation typically includes radio waves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, and x-rays.
The radiation was named after its discovery in a General Electric synchrotron accelerator built in 1946 and announced in May 1947 by Frank Elder, Anatole Gurewitsch, Robert Langmuir, and Herb Pollock in a letter entitled "Radiation from Electrons in a Synchrotron. Pollock recounts:
Electrons are accelerated to high speeds in several stages to achieve a final energy that is typically in the GeV range. The electrons are stored in an ultrahigh vacuum ring on a closed loop and thus circle the ring a vast number of times. The electrons are forced to travel in a closed loop by strong magnetic fields. The magnets also need to repeatedly recompress the Coulomb-exploding space charge electron bunches. The change of direction is a form of acceleration and thus the electrons emit radiation at GeV frequencies. This is similar to a radio antenna, but with the difference that the relativistic speed changes the observed frequency due to the Doppler effect by a factor . Relativistic Lorentz contraction bumps the frequency by another factor of , thus multiplying the GeV frequency of the resonant cavity that accelerates the electrons into the X-ray range. Another dramatic effect of relativity is that the radiation pattern is also distorted from the isotropic dipole pattern expected from non-relativistic theory into an extremely forward-pointing cone of radiation. This makes synchrotron radiation sources the brightest known sources of X-rays. The planar acceleration geometry makes the radiation linearly polarized when observed in the orbital plane, and circularly polarized when observed at a small angle to that plane.
The advantages of using synchrotron radiation for spectroscopy and diffraction have been realized by an ever-growing scientific community, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. In the beginning, storage rings were built for particle physics and synchrotron radiation was used in "parasitic mode" when bending magnet radiation had to be extracted by drilling extra holes.
As the application of synchrotron radiation became more intense and promising, devices that enhanced the intensity of synchrotron radiation were built into existing rings. Third-generation synchrotron radiation sources were conceived and optimized from the outset to produce bright X-rays.
Nowadays, fourth-generation sources that will include different concepts for producing ultrabright, pulsed time-structured X-rays for extremely demanding and also probably yet-to-be-conceived experiments are under consideration.
As mentioned above, bending electromagnets are usually used to generate the radiation, but to generate stronger radiation, another kind of device, called an insertion device, is sometimes employed. Current third-generation synchrotron radiation sources are typically heavily based upon these insertion devices, when straight sections in the storage ring are used for inserting periodic magnetic structures (composed of many magnets that have a special repeating row of N and S poles) that force the electrons into a sinusoidal path or helical path. Thus, instead of a single bend, many tens or hundreds of "wiggles" at precisely calculated positions add up or multiply the total intensity that is seen at the end of the straight section. Thus these devices are called wigglers or undulators. The main difference between an undulator and a wiggler is the intensity of their magnetic field and the amplitude of the deviation from the straight line path of the electrons.
There are openings in the storage ring to let the radiation exit and follow a beam line into the experimenters' vacuum chamber. A great number of such beamlines can emerge from modern third-generation synchrotron radiation sources.
Synchrotron radiation is also generated by astronomical structures and motions, typically where relativistic electrons spiral (and hence change velocity) through magnetic fields. Two of its characteristics include (1) Non-thermal radiation (2) Polarization.
T. K. Breus noted that questions of priority on the history of astrophysical synchrotron radiation is quite complicated, writing:
Supermassive black holes have been suggested for producing synchrotron radiation, by gravitationally accelerating ions through magnetic fields.