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Last Updated: Friday, 8 February 2008, 09:28 GMT
'Super-scope' shines on Mary Rose
By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News

The Diamond synchrotron (Diamond Light Source)
Scientists are using a "synchroton" to study the Mary Rose's timbers

Light rays, 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, are being used to probe the Tudor warship, the Mary Rose.

The research is taking place at the Diamond synchrotron, a beam-generating machine that covers the area of five football pitches.

Scientists are using the facility in a bid to fine-tune the conservation of the historic vessel's timbers.

The Mary Rose, pride of Henry VIII's English fleet, sank in 1545 and lay on the sea bed until being raised in 1982.

Mary Rose (Mary Rose Trust)
The boat's timbers are sprayed continuously
The work carried out at Diamond will help conservators understand more about the sulphur compounds buried deep within the ship's timbers.

Researchers aim to find out how stable they are, as these can be converted to sulphuric acid when oxygen is present - threatening preservation efforts.

After sinking in the 16th Century, the Mary Rose lay on the bottom of the Solent for the next 400 years.

Thanks to a protective covering of sea-bed sediment, many of her timbers and artefacts remained intact when she was raised from the salty depths in 1982.

Since then, scientists have been endeavouring to ensure the preservation of the historic vessel, which is housed at Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard.

From 1994, her hull timbers have been continuously sprayed with a water-soluble wax called polyethylene glycol.

Mary Rose (Mary Rose Trust)
The team is looking at sulphur and iron compounds in the timber

Dr Mark Jones, from the Mary Rose Trust, who is leading the research project, said: "It prevents the wood from distorting, shrinking, splitting, cracking or collapsing.

"But, in addition to that you have to remove some of the salts that have occurred over the many centuries - chlorides, which are easy to wash out, and the iron and sulphur compounds, which in the presence of oxygen can be converted into sulphuric acid."

The biochemist said that over the last 15 years, researchers had successfully neutralised all of the acids in the wood and had removed the vast majority of the troublesome compounds.

Dr Jones told the BBC News website: "What we are now trying to do using Diamond technology is to investigate any remaining compounds that could present a threat in 20, or 30, or even 500 years time."

Silver doughnut

The scientists, from the Mary Rose Trust, the National Museum of Scotland, Daresbury Laboratory and the University of Kent, have been placing thin slivers of the ship's timber into the "microfocus beamline" at the Oxfordshire-based synchrotron.

The facility - sometimes described as a super-microscope - works by speeding electrons around a huge doughnut-shaped chamber until they are travelling so fast that they begin to emit light.

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

These intense rays are then channelled off into beamlines and focused on to samples of material, like the Mary Rose timbers, allowing their fine structure to be analysed.

By observing the wood at the cellular level, the team has been able to look at compounds of sulphur and iron buried deep within the timbers.

Dr Jones said: "Over time, sulphur has bonded with the cell walls in the wood, producing a compound that is extremely stable and impossible to remove because it is so deep in the timber.

"With the help of Diamond and university research, we want to make sure that these compounds will remain stable over long, long periods of time under different display conditions."

He added: "Essentially, what we are trying to do is to fine-tune the conservation process so that it lasts for many, many more centuries."

Charles Barker, managing director of Mary Rose Archaeological Services, added: "It is all about looking at potential problems that might crop up that we don't know about now."

'Super-scope' to see hidden texts
13 Sep 07 |  Science/Nature
'Super-scope' opens for business
05 Feb 07 |  Science/Nature
Diamond facility starts to shine
14 Jul 06 |  Science/Nature
Mary Rose given 21m cash boost
25 Jan 08 |  Hampshire


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