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Diamond synchrotron

An aerial view of Diamond Light Source in April 2005. Credit: Diamond Light Source

In 2007, Diamond Light Source, the UK's newest synchrotron, opened its beamlines to scientists. Oxfordshire-based Diamond is the largest UK-funded scientific facility to have been built in over 40 years. The synchrotron, which includes three particle accelerators, produces extremely bright beams of light, which are used in all kinds of research - from determining the structure of proteins to understanding best how to conserve historical artefacts.

Among the gently rolling hills of the Oxfordshire countryside is a giant doughnut-shaped building of steel and concrete. Inside is a machine capable of producing beams of light 10 billion times brighter than the sun. Built on the renowned Harwell Science and Innovation Campus near Didcot, Diamond Light Source - or Diamond for short - is the UK's newest synchrotron, a machine able to produce extremely bright light.

The result of collaboration between the Wellcome Trust and the UK Government, Diamond is the largest UK-funded scientific facility to be built for more than 40 years. The Trust contributed 14 per cent of the £263 million cost for the first phase of construction, and continues to contribute 14 per cent of Diamond's operating costs.

The Diamond synchrotron contains three particle accelerators that are used to produce extremely bright x-rays, infrared and ultra-violet light - so-called 'synchrotron light'. Electrons are accelerated around the large 'storage ring' to just under the speed of light. When passed through strong electromagnetic fields the electrons give out the synchrotron light. The light can be transferred into one of the experimental laboratories (or beamlines) found at points along the ring and used to study a variety of materials.

The Diamond synchrotron currently has 18 operational beamlines. These include 'macromolecular crystallography beamlines' - for examining biological samples such as proteins - and others with specific roles such as the study of electronic and magnetic materials or the chemical make-up of complex substances such as rock samples. The 'extreme conditions beamline' allows researchers to explore materials under intense pressures and temperatures.

Four additional phase II beamlines are scheduled to be added. Funding for Phase III of the Diamond Project was announced on 30 March 2010. This will provide for a further ten beamlines by 2017, bringing the full complement of beamlines at Diamond to 32. A process is underway to select the Phase III beamlines.

Research at Diamond

Almost a decade after the collaboration between the Trust and the Government began, operations commenced at the Didcot site in January 2007. Since then, the beamlines have been busy.

The first person to use the macromolecular structure beamline was Professor Dave Stuart, Head of Structural Biology at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford. A team from Newcastle University was the first to solve a de novo crystal structure, i.e. one from scratch, by producing a structure of a protein from a kind of heat-loving bacterium early in 2008.

Diamond is also home to the Trust-funded membrane protein lab (MPL), led by Diamond Fellow Professor So Iwata (Imperial College London). This facility is open to the wider scientific community for research and training in the X-ray crystallography of membrane proteins, which are notoriously difficult to purify and crystallise.

The applications of the synchrotron are not restricted to protein crystallography. Diamond's 'super microscopes' have been put to use by a variety of researchers working in a number of fields - everything from agriculture to engineering, mineral exploration to forensics.

Scientists working on preserving the Tudor warship Mary Rose are using Diamond to try and find ways to preserve the wood more effectively. They are studying timbers that have been in contact with iron (e.g. via bolts or other iron objects such as cannons) and where iron sulphide compounds have been found, to understand how iron and sulphur interact with individual wood cells.

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