Thursday, 12 July 2012

Diamond shines brighter than a million suns....

Diamond is the UK's newest synchrotron radiation lightsource. This is where the Manchester team finds itself this week, working at beam-line i18...once again, bathing fossils with intense synchrotron light. The experiment will take us through the weekend and into the beginning of next week...once again we step into the world of sleep depravation, no sunlight (but that is normal, as we are in the UK). We finally got here last night...or should I say, this we pulled into the facility accommodation at 3am, after leaving Manchester a little later than planned. This is a rather busy time of year.

Our beam hutch, where the experiment takes place, is relatively huge, when compared to many such facilities. We now have to learn how to navigate the multitude of buttons, levers, and shutters that operate the experimental station. All good fun...but hard when sleep-deprived. The experimental hutch is so large, we have to check it for any hidden people or minor continents before we shut the 'barn-door' on any experiment.

Once the experimental hutch is sealed, interlocked and safe, we can then open-up the shutter that permits intense X-rays to flood our sample. If light were water, this is akin to the Pacific Ocean being blasted with some 'Star-Trek-like' force through a pinhole. The resultant beam excites the electronic shells of each atom with which it interacts...en-LIGHTNING us with a fluorescent yield that is diagnostic to each element. This is when we start watching, line by line, as an image slowly starts to form on the true Rolf Harris style, we all ask 'Do you know what it is yet?'... as we scan each 40 micron slice over the fossil. The distinct elemental signature of each sample tells a wonderful story of life, biosynthetic pathways, burial, preservation and above all chemistry. This story can only be unpicked using such a vast resource as Diamond.

As the experiment begins to run, we all wonder what new insight the results might provide into our world of Applied Palaeontology and Chemical Ghosts...

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