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Last Updated: Friday, 14 July 2006, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
Diamond facility starts to shine
By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News

Engineer Nigel Bennett at Diamond (Diamond Light Source Ltd)
Diamond will gradually ramp up the research opportunities it offers

In the heart of South Oxfordshire stands a vast silver doughnut-shaped building.

The futuristic construction is home to a huge scientific contraption that will, quite literally, shine a light on the tiny particles that make up the world.

As well as furthering our understanding of nature, it will help develop new materials, drugs and electronics - and even make our food taste better.

This new research facility, Diamond Light Source, represents the UK's largest scientific investment for 30 years.

Covering the area of five football pitches, the facility has cost about 300m - funded by the government and the Wellcome Trust - and is on-track to open in just six months' time.

I think Diamond will impact on the whole of the UK's science and technology base
Prof Trevor Rayment
At its heart is a synchrotron - a particle accelerator that uses electrons to generate powerful "synchrotron" light that enables scientists to look inside matter at the molecular and atomic scale.

"If you have a beam of electrons travelling close to the speed of light and if you apply a magnetic field, they bend, and in the process of doing so they throw off synchrotron light," says Diamond's technical director, Richard Walker.

Zooming about

To get the electrons up to this speed, they are first fired out of a piece of equipment called an electron gun.

Light source (Diamond Light Source Ltd)
Diamond has produced its first beam of light
They zoom down a linear accelerator in a thin, hollow, vacuumed tube before entering a ring called the booster synchrotron.

Here, they pick up speed until they have an energy of 3 GeV (gigaelectronvolts) - at this point, they are moving so fast they could travel around the world 7.5 times in one second.

Then, they are released into a larger ring that measures 562.6m in circumference and is packed with huge magnets.

The electrons hurtle around and around, essentially stored, but all the while losing energy in the form of light which is channelled off into "beamlines" where it can pass through samples of material to be studied.

Schematic of Diamond facility (BBC)
Electrons fired into straight accelerator, or linac
Boosted in small synchrotron and injected into storage ring
Magnets in large ring bend and focus electrons accelerated to near light-speeds
Energy lost emerges down beamlines as highly focused light at X-ray wavelengths
"The light is special because it covers a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum - from microwaves to X-rays," adds Professor Walker.

"With this, you can probe the structure of matter to the molecular and atomic level, by measuring the reflection, diffraction, absorption etc of the light.

"And in this business of generating synchrotron light, it is all about the brightness. Brightness allows you to do the most cutting-edge research, looking at smaller and more dilute samples."

He says the light produced by the Diamond synchrotron is 100 billion times brighter than light produced from a conventional X-ray tube.

Booking a slot

The Diamond synchrotron will be replacing the Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRS) in Daresbury, Cheshire. The SRS was the world's first dedicated synchrotron but is due to close at the end of 2008.

Many countries have their own synchrotrons, and new ones are being built in France, the US and China.

This month, the Diamond synchrotron reached the milestone of emitting its first beam of light. When it opens in January 2007, it will be working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, apart from down-time for repairs and maintenance.

Booster synchrotron (Diamond Light Source Ltd)
Diamond is one of a number of synchrotrons around the world
Scientists who want to use the facility will need to apply to book a slot to work on one of the machine's initial seven beamlines (this number could increase to more than 40 in the coming years).

It will probably cost 3,000-10,000 for a time-slot on the machine, and it is thought a combination of academic and industrial teams will use the facility.

Diamond's beamlines will be employed in many different areas of science.

One, for example, will be used to probe the atomic structure of magnetic materials; another will show what happens to materials in "extreme conditions", such as very high pressures and temperatures; and another will help the study of complex molecular structures such as viruses or proteins.

Diamond is housed in a vast, doughnut-shaped building

The team behind Diamond says the research will lead to breakthroughs in the fields of biotechnology, medicine, environment and materials science.

Professor Trevor Rayment, a physical chemist from Birmingham University and chair of the user forum at Diamond, says he is very excited about the new facility.

In fact, a year ago he moved from Cambridge University to Birmingham University just so he could be closer to Diamond to carry out his own research on understanding corrosion.

"I think Diamond will impact on the whole of the UK's science and technology base - from oil rigs through to things as important as chocolate: chocolate tastes as good as it does because of its micro-structure, and one of the beamlines will be able to analyse the formation of chocolate in situ.

"I'm really looking forward to doing experiments here. Having this quality of facility in the UK is going to be great."

Diamond facility, artist's impression  (Diamond Light Source Ltd)
Artist's impression: Diamond is a huge undertaking for the UK

See the new Diamond science facility in Oxfordshire

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