What is the fastest thing on Earth? Usain Bolt? A cheetah? Lewis Hamilton in a Formula 1 racing car? Unless we delve into the realms of quantum physics, we all know that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. But there are a few things that can get close. Electrons, for example, inside a particle accelerator race around at a fraction below the speed of light; so fast they could complete 7.5 revolutions of the Earth’s equator in one second.
Arguably the world’s most famous particle accelerator is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Switzerland, where protons are accelerated and collided to give scientists a glimpse inside atoms and help us better understand the origins of our universe. But not all particle accelerators are atom smashers. In the 1940s scientists discovered something called synchrotron radiation – a special kind of extremely bright light which they realised could be exploited to study the world around us in ultrafine detail. Forty years later a dedicated, purpose-built synchrotron radiation source was built at Daresbury, Cheshire in the UK. This type of accelerator sends particles in one direction only, passing the electrons through special magnetic fields to create powerful energy known as synchrotron light.
A bright light for science
At ten billion times brighter than the sun synchrotron light is one of the brightest lights in our universe. It spans the electromagnetic spectrum, from infrared to ultraviolet light to X-rays. Scientists use it to study the atomic and molecular details of all kinds of matter and material. From proteins to meteorites to metal alloys; a synchrotron allows scientists to look deep inside their specimens. Often, being able to see inside something helps us to understand how it works. Think of a mechanical clock. If you open it up and look at the structure of the cogs that make up the clockwork inside, you start to get an idea of how it works. The same principle applies with synchrotron research; being able to determine the structure of things helps scientists to understand their function.
This kind of knowledge can be incredibly powerful. Synchrotron science impacts on a broad range of research; from finding sustainable energy solutions, inventing smart, new materials, through to creating novel vaccines to tackle deadly viruses and diseases.
Light for life
Recently scientists have used the UK’s national synchrotron Diamond Light Source to increase their understanding of the foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV). This has led to a new methodology to produce a vaccine that is entirely synthetic, making it much easier to store and reducing the need for a cold chain. This is important research because it represents a big step forward in the global campaign to control FMDV in countries where the disease is endemic, and could significantly reduce the threat to countries currently free of the disease. Crucially, this new approach to making and stabilising vaccines could also impact on how viruses from the same family are fought, including polio.
Revealing our history
From modern day medicines to ancient artefacts, synchrotrons cast their light far and wide. They can be a handy tool for conservationists wanting to know more about their artefacts without damaging them. In the past 20 years synchrotrons have shone their spotlight on the works of Turner, Rembrandt and van Gogh to name but a few, giving an insight into the materials and methods used by these world-famous painters. From art to archaeology, in January this year the BBC reported on pioneering archaeological work carried out at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France. Scientists used the ESRF’s X-rays to read a burnt, rolled-up scroll buried by Mount Vesuvius in AD79 without having to unroll it.
A global endeavour
There are over 40 synchrotrons around the world, and it doesn’t stop there. Cutting-edge, complementary facilities are in operation and under development, using incredibly bright light to further our knowledge and capabilities. Free-electron lasers (FELs) are the next generation of light source. These pioneering particle accelerators produce super-brilliant, ultra-short flashes of X-ray light to piece together snapshots of atoms in motion, furthering our understanding of the processes taking place. The applications of such insights are complementary to and as vast as synchrotron research, from biology to chemistry to physics and Earth sciences.
Whether you knew it or not, these incredible research facilities frequently impact our daily lives. On average each operational light source facility publishes more than one paper a day in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Each paper reports on new findings that advance our knowledge across the board.
So next time you download a new track to your smartphone, or take an antihistamine to alleviate your allergies, think about how a light 10 billion times more powerful than the sun has been used to reveal the secrets within. It is a light for science. A light that is fuelled by our thirst for knowledge. A light that will keep on burning until we have no more questions to answer.
Sarah Bucknall is a Science Communicator at Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron facility. Sarah represents Diamond on the Management Board for lightsources.org, a collaboration and website providing a vital resource for information on the latest news and research from the synchrotrons and FELs around the world. Lightsources.org is a founding partner of the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies.