Diamond Gives Sparkle To R&D | January 2, 2006 Issue - Vol. 84 Issue 1 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 84 Issue 1 | p. 14
Issue Date: January 2, 2006

Diamond Gives Sparkle To R&D

New synchrotron sets out welcome mat for industrial researchers who need powerful light analysis
Department: Business
An artist's rendering shows the experimental stations, or beam lines, that come off the synchrotron like spokes.
Credit: Diamond Image
An artist's rendering shows the experimental stations, or beam lines, that come off the synchrotron like spokes.
Credit: Diamond Image

A year from now, in early 2007, a new synchrotron and research facility being built near Oxford, England, is scheduled to open its doors to researchers.

The Diamond Light Source will mostly be used by researchers in universities, governmental laboratories, and scientific institutes. But its managers are keen to entice industrial researchers into using the powerful light-beam facilities as well.

To promote that aim, last month, the under-construction facility was opened to nearly 140 potential industrial customers. Representatives from the chemical, pharmaceutical, engineering, aerospace, food, environmental, information technology, automotive, and electronics sectors attended the Industry Open Day.

The goal of the day was to introduce businesses to the synchrotron's research capabilities so that industrial managers could begin to think of projects that exploit those capabilities. It also offered Diamond officials an opportunity to meet "with potential users so that we can ensure that future developments of the machine match the expectations of researchers from both academia and industry," said Colin Norris, Diamond's director of physical sciences.

Diamond plans to attract industrial users through the quality of the photon beam it will offer and the high levels of service and expertise that researchers will be able to tap into. Diamond Chairman Sir David Cooksey said, "The facility must be geared up to provide a service for industry that is second to none." In fact, Diamond will be in stiff competition to attract business users not just from the U.K. but from around the world as new synchrotrons are being built elsewhere. As just one example, the Synchrotron Light for Experimental Science & Applications in the Middle East, in Jordan (C&EN, Dec. 19, 2005, page 55), is on schedule to open in 2007 as well.

The synchrotron, a third-generation design, is operated by Diamond Light Source Ltd., a joint venture between the British government—through the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils—and the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's leading biomedical research charities and the U.K.'s largest nongovernmental source of funds for biomedical research. The government owns 86% of the venture.

The superstructure of the synchrotron is mostly completed at its site in South Oxfordshire, part of the Harwell science campus of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority. Described as the largest U.K.-funded scientific facility to be built in more than 30 years, it consists of a linear accelerator and booster synchrotron in a building the size of five soccer fields.

Eventually, Diamond could house as many as 40 different experimental stations, or beam lines, that come off the synchrotron like spokes. Each line will include what its managers describe as an optics hutch, an experimental hutch, and a control cabin. The facility will take over functions now handled in the U.K. by a second-generation synchrotron in northwest England that will be closed by the end of 2008.

The Diamond synchrotron will be the most powerful light-beam facility in Europe and one of a handful of such structures worldwide, Norris and his colleagues said.

They claim that such intense light beams enable researchers to study the structure of materials and biological samples on the nanometer scale. This capability could prove valuable in the fields of biotechnology, medicine, environmental science, and advanced materials.

For example, materials scientists will be able to observe, in real time, materials fracturing under stress in three dimensions. The Diamond synchrotron can create nearly 1,000 images per second, enabling researchers to determine exactly why materials break. Similarly, in the field of drug discovery, Diamond X-rays will be able to characterize disease-causing small proteins, helping pharmaceutical companies design drugs to block the biomolecules.

The building that will open in 2007 will cost roughly $450 million and house the first seven beam lines. The lines, in turn, will be organized into hubs. One, concentrating on biological sciences and food research, features three macromolecular crystallography instruments dedicated to determining the structures of complex biological molecules. One beam line in this hub will have Category 3 containment facilities for working with pathogenic samples. The second hub will concentrate on environmental science, and the third on materials and nanoscience.

Another 15 beam lines, including one test station, will then be added at the rate of about four per year. Other beam lines, up to the maximum of 40, could be added as needed.

Advice on industrial access is being provided by the Diamond Industrial Science Committee (DISCo), chaired by Malcolm Skingle, director of European academic liaison at GlaxoSmithKline. With the going rate worldwide of roughly $4,400 to $5,250 for an eight-hour shift on a synchrotron, DISCo is looking at models that range from a "debentures" approach, in which a company makes a contribution to capital costs, to a "standby" model, in which companies take what's available without booking in advance. And DISCo is working out ways in which small and medium-sized companies can use the synchrotron.

In fact, Gerhard Materlik, Diamond's chief executive officer, said his company aims to have 10% industry use of the facility, double the average industrial use rate of synchrotrons worldwide. "We have funded 22 beam lines, but we have space for 40. There are no constraints there," he said. "And we will have very fast approval of any project proposed by industry—days, not weeks. We realize there are projects that need to be solved fast."

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