“There are three things that make me incredibly proud that Europe hosts the ESRF,” says Carlos Moedas, the European commissioner for research, science and innovation. “First, the ESRF is a beacon of excellent science. Second, it is a powerhouse of international scientific collaboration. And third, it has created an interdisciplinary hub where scientists of all disciplines come together to exchange their knowledge.”

Moedas’s words sum up what most people feel about the ESRF, which for 30 years has brought scientists together to push the frontiers of X-ray science. It was in 1988 that the research ministers of 11 European countries signed the Convention and Statutes of the ESRF, bringing the facility formally into existence. Just four years later it was up and running – on time and on budget – generating X-rays of energy and quality that exceeded even the designers’ expectations.

It was the world’s first “third-generation” synchrotron light source, surpassing the capabilities of earlier second-generation sources through its use in the storage ring of devices known as undulators and wigglers. These intensified the production of X-rays, providing users with the most powerful microscope ever to understand the microscopic nature of matter.

You can find out more about the ESRF and its three-decade journey at the forefront of X-ray science in a special anniversary issue of ESRFnews, a magazine that is produced through a long-standing partnership between the ESRF and IOP Publishing, which also publishes Physics World. This special issue, with a digital edition that is freely available to read online, features a special fold-out timeline with recollections from people who witnessed the key events, and examines how the ESRF has helped to revolutionize 10 areas of science, from the basic building blocks of life to some of humanity’s most important industrial processes.

Completing the picture is a look into to the future, with the upgrade to the Extremely Brilliant Source (EBS) set to turn the ESRF into the world’s first high-energy fourth-generation synchrotron source. “The ESRF is, and will be, the leader in synchrotron science, thanks to its governance and its ability to attract the best minds worldwide,” says Francesco Sette, the ESRF’s director-general. “As long as X-rays are needed, the ESRF will be there to supply the best service.”