Thursday, 16 December 2010

Atoms to Phillysaurus wrecked

Once again, the Manchester team completed the synchrotron beam-time at SLAC. I have to say that Roy, Holly, Nick, Pete, Bruce, Karen, Jim and Bill worked long hours to gently bathe a large number of fossils in a monochromatic x-ray beam. Uwe Bergmann was as cheerful and helpful as ever, helping to set-up our experimental hutch, but also drive the said experiment over the last week. When I hear of sleep depravation studies, I think of synchrotron all I could do today, after my return to Philly at 2am this morning, was sleep.

On the last day at the synchrotron, Uwe had a treat in store for us all...a visit to the LCLS, the LINAC Coherent Light Source. This two mile long....yes TWO MILES...linear accelerator is the most powerful of its type in the world. This is where potential Nobel Prize winners are queuing to get beam-time. Stood in the main accelerator housing (below) the hum of vast power was palpable.

Bill, Roy, Bruce and Pete in the LCLS 2-mile long accelerator!
The LCLS produces pulses of X-rays more than a billion times brighter than the most powerful existing sources, such as the synchrotron source we were using to map fossil chemistry, which are also based upon large electron accelerators. Why such power? Well, if you want to image atoms and molecules in motion, this is where you have to come! The ultra-fast pulses allows the stop-motion capture of dynamic processes at the atomic level. If you want to understand how vitamins work on an atomic will want to work at the LCLS. Being a camera fanatic, I had to know the speed of this 'pulse-laser-shutter' my camera can hit a rapid 1/8000 of a second. Well, I was a tad surprised to here that the pulse of the LCLS allows a 'shutter-speed' of less than 100 femtoseconds (100 femtoseconds = 1/10 of a trillionth of a second)...this is fast!

LCLS from above...a vast facility!
The whole facility is so vast, that I had to take a picture of a picture (above) to give you an idea of the scale. The LCLS Far Hall (bottom left) is still being completed, but the nearby LCLS Near Hall, is up and running....only for a few weeks! It has already generated a stack of scientific papers in top-ranking journals...more importantly, it is pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.
Bill, Holly and Uwe align a sample in the beam-line hutch.
However, for the time-being...our team will continue to use the SSRL it is bright enough for what we need...well, at least for the next few samples! Who knows, one-day, we too might get to shed some very bright light on fossils at the LCLS...and who knows what we might find!

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