12 Sep 2014

The brilliant light of Canada's synchrotron

The CLS experiment floor 
by David Stobbe, Stobbe Photography:
By Ashleigh Mattern
Located at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, the Canadian Light Source houses one of the largest science projects in Canadian history: the synchrotron. The only one of its kind in Canada, this giant machine began operations in 2005, and helps researchers to examine a huge array of subjects.

What is it?

A synchrotron is a type of particle accelerator, a machine that “uses electromagnetic fields to propel charged particles to high speeds and to contain them in well-defined beams” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Particle_accelerator). You may have heard of the Large Hadron Collider -- the world’s largest particle collider, which is also a type of particle accelerator.

Rather than collide particles like at the LHC, the synchrotron at the Canadian Light Source is designed to create light so bright, it allows scientists to study extremely fine details and even the chemical properties of materials. For example, a team of scientists studying osteoporosis were able to look at the cellular structure of bones, studying human bone at a level of detail rarely seen before.

These crystals were grown at the Canadian Macromolecular Crystallography Facility at the Canadian Light Source
synchrotron and photographed using a powerful microscope.
Image by CMCF staff scientist Shaun Labiuk and
CLS Communications Coordinator Mark Ferguson. https://flic.kr/p/hKGn6V
How does it work?

The process starts with the Electron Gun: it shoots high voltage electricity through a tungsten-oxide disk, which heats to about 1,000 degrees Celsius, giving some electrons enough energy to leave the surface. A voltage of 200,000 volts directs them to the Linear Accelerator. 
(Canadian Light Source).

The Linear Accelerator speeds the electrons up to move at 99.999998 per cent the speed of light. To get up to this speed, microwave radio frequency fields push the electrons, “much the same way a surfer is pushed by water waves" (Canadian Light Source). 

Here's a fun fact: “The electrons… must travel in a vacuum to avoid colliding into atoms or molecules and disappearing.” There are fewer molecules in the synchrotron’s vacuum system than there are in space around the International Space Station (Canadian Light Source). 

Next, they hit the Booster Ring where the energy of the electrons is raised from 250 mega-electron volts (MeV) to 2,900 MeV using a radio frequency cavity -- a structure that contains an electromagnetic field. These are really, really high energy electrons! To compare, the energy of charged particles in a nuclear explosion only range from 0.3 to 3 MeV (Canadian Light Source).

Finally, the electrons circulate in the Storage Ring. Whenever a researcher needs the synchrotron's light, they activate a magnet that bends the electrons’ path toward the beamlines and experimental stations.

How do researchers use it?

The Canadian Light Source website says the synchrotron has been critical to over 1,000 scientific publications. The light source can help advance medicine, agriculture and biotechnology, mining, micro and nanotechnology; can help fight cancer, and reveal historical secrets; help us build better transportation and computers, and create better materials.

The synchrotron has been used in research that aims to:
  • reduce greenhouse gases
  • clean up mining wastes
  • develop more effective paints and motor oils
  • develop new products like solar panels, safer medical implants, and more powerful computer chips
  • search for other life in the universe
  • protect people from the damage strokes cause
  • treat antibiotic resistant diseases like urinary tract infections 
  • better manage the nitrogen in soil so that we can grow enough food, but not harm the planet
  • understand bone structure to combat osteoporosis
  • discover how methylmercury is absorbed by developing cells           

And these are just a few examples! 

To learn more about the Canadian Light Source: 
To learn more about how the synchrotron works, check out the article 

Ashleigh Mattern is a full-time freelance writer, editor, and photographer. She writes on a variety of topics, but has a passion for science and the arts. See more of her work at http://www.ashleighmattern.com

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