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Published: Wednesday July 16, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday July 18, 2014 MYT 7:12:12 PM

Precious beams: Research facility gains attention for its use of 'beam lines'

Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility is nestled among green fields in Didcot, England.

Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility is nestled among green fields in Didcot, England.

The Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in England has acquired a loyal following of scientists.

The Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility works in a similar way to a machine you may have heard of. Except, unlike the Large Hadron Collider – a 27km-long machine that forms a tunnelled loop buried deep beneath the Alps along the Swiss-French border – the synchrotron at Diamond goes on for about half a kilometre, and can be found above ground near Didcot, a civil parish in England best known for its “living railway museum”.

However great an attraction the Didcot Railway Centre has been for steam engine enthusiasts (thousands of whom apparently flock there every year), Diamond, which opened in 2007, has acquired its own loyal following – of scientists.

Diamond Light Source - overview animation from Diamond Light Source on Vimeo.

In total, over 3,000 international researchers from both academia and industry use beams generated by its synchrotron (particle accelerator) facility. Working from various research stations scattered throughout the doughnut-shaped building, they make use of “beam lines” – siphoned out from one constant stream of light that runs rings around the synchrotron storage ring, which is positioned like a metal vein within the “doughnut”.

This central beam of light is produced when charged electron particles are shot out by an electron gun.

One for the album: Malaysian researcher Indran Mathavan (back row, second from left) is part of an international team of scientists based at the Diamond Light Synchrotron's Membrane Protein Lab. His foray abroad began in 2010, off the back of a National Science Foundation scholarship, which he was awarded by the Science, Innovation and Technology Ministry.
One for the album: Malaysian researcher Indran Mathavan (back row, second from left) is part of an international team of scientists based at the Diamond Light Synchrotron’s Membrane Protein Lab. His foray abroad began in 2010, off the back of a National Science Foundation scholarship, which he was awarded by the Science, Innovation and Technology Ministry.

The electrons are accelerated and directed along a 360° trajectory via a sequence of magnets, which causes them to emit electromagnetic radiation.

Light, by the way, is also a form of electromagnetic radiation. Some wavelengths of light are visible to the human eye, while others – infra-red, radio, X-rays, ultraviolet and gamma rays, for example – are not.

What is useful about synchrotron light (which is 10 billion times brighter than sunlight) is that it can be fine-tuned to any number of wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum, for use in a variety of different applications.

This is exactly what happens at Diamond – there are currently 24 beam lines where light is siphoned off from the central storage-ring like intersections on a highway, directed through sophisticated machinery that filters out specific wavelengths to be targeted through sample materials.

The central beam of light produced by a particle accelerator in Diamond Light Source's state-of-the-art synchrotron facility is directed along a 360° trajectory via a sequence of guiding  magnets in a central storage ring. This is an image of a sextupole magnet responsible for bending the electron beam around in a circle. - Diamond Light Source
The central beam of light produced by a particle accelerator in Diamond Light Source’s state-of-the-art synchrotron facility is directed along a 360° trajectory via a sequence of guiding magnets in a central storage ring. This is an image of a sextupole magnet responsible for bending the electron beam around in a circle. — Diamond Light Source

Scientists use it to look at really small things; from detecting tiny structures on surface clusters of metal atoms (useful for engineers analysing how strains, cracks and corrosion may occur in containers for nuclear waste) to studying degradation in the Dead Sea scrolls (useful for scholars who might want to find out if prying apart pieces of millenia-old rolled parchment might result in an archaeological disaster).

Funnily enough, though its applications are vast, dedicated synchrotrons actually happened more as an afterthought, after the first high-energy particle accelerators (predecessors of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN) were developed in the 1950s.

Today, those high-energy machines like the LHC are famous for investigations into dark matter – that elusive stuff that scientists think may be the glue that holds our universe together – which is done by studying the aftermath of smashing particles at super-accelerated speeds.

The by-product of such rapid acceleration, however – the light emitted – has proven to be a game-changer in all kinds of fields. Since attention was focused on it in the 1960s, it has made its mark on chemistry, earth and life sciences, engineering and even cultural heritage.

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