Didn’t I see this in an episode of Dr Who?
It sounds like science fiction, but it’s real. A synchrotron is an enormous machine that’s also called a super microscope, light source facility or particle accelerator. Early variations were the Bevatron (built in 1950) and the Cosmotron (1953).
Synchrotrons are often about the size of a football field, but they can be much bigger: CERN, near Geneva, is constructing an accelerator that will fill an underground space 27 km in radius (the Large Hadron Collider). Some of the world’s other forty-plus synchrotrons are in China, Singapore, Japan, France, Germany, Brazil and the United States. On 31 July 2007, Australia’s first synchrotron opened in Clayton.
So what does it do?
It uses powerful magnets to circulate electrons at rapid speed around a ring, and then flings the light down its curved hollow arms (beamlines) where it can be accessed at the tips. The accelerated electrons produce bright infrared and ultraviolet light, gamma rays and x-rays.
What’s the point of that?
Synchrotron light allows scientists to investigate all types of matter more efficiently and quickly than before.
Synchrotrons are used in drug development, for agriculture and mining purposes, and in forensic science, among other things. One of the first projects underway here is a study on a drug to treat dementia. Later this year, art conservationists will use synchrotron light to see exactly how paintings degrade.
What’s ours like?
Melbourne’s synchrotron is a third-generation, medium-energy facility. Five beamlines are open for use, and four more are being built. It contains 400 magnets, the largest 30 of which each weigh roughly the same as an elephant.
You can see our local Accelerator Team on their website (www.synchrotron.vic.gov.au), where they’ve documented the creation of the synchrotron in fond detail. December 2005 reads: ‘In the small hours of this morning the first beam was seen at the start of the Linac to Booster line…’ Poetry in motion.