Lights, Synchrotron, Action!

Compared to CERN’s mammoth Large Hadron Collider, any of the world’s synchrotron particle accelerators must rank as a very junior cousin.

Yet these “light laboratories” or cyclic particle accelerators relying on electromagnetic radiation and descended from the original cyclotron, cost just a fraction of the US$9 billion LHC. They have multiple applications and the scientific data they provide is very valuable to disciplines as diverse as physics, crystallography, chemistry, biology and even environmental studies.

So the commissioning of Brazil’s planned fourth-generation synchrotron is eagerly awaited by Latin American scientists of all stripes. Researchers from 17 nations gathered at SyncLight 2015 and event event held in July also known as the São Paulo School of Advanced Sciences on Recent Developments in Synchrotron Radiation.

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No peashooter: Brazil’s new synchrotron could unlock plant biology mysteries.

The SyncLight event was designed to prepare and train a new generation of scientists to use Brazil’s new Synchrotron Light Laboratory, named Sirius. This will replace a much smaller device that’s been operational since 1997. When the new device starts up in 2018, it will have the highest energy particle emissions of any synchrotron in its class worldwide.

Now under construction at CNPEM (Centro Nacional de Pesquisa em Energia e Materiais) near Campinas in São Paulo state, and budgeted at US$192 million for completion in 2018, Sirius is a trophy project for São Paulo state, and indeed for the nation. It will be managed by a laboratory called LNLS ( Laboratório Nacional de Luz Síncrotron). You can read a detailed article about its design and capabilities by clicking here.

To those frequenting the world of high energy physics and its hunt for conjectural particles like the Higgs Boson, a synchrotron might seem just a peashooter. But for a developing nation, it arguably has much more practical use, especially in the realms of plant physiology, agronomy and environmental management where processes need to be studied at atomic level.

According to Ryan Tappero, of the US National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS), once completed the Sirius array will allow detailed study of the effects of high energy particles on materials. He said that while the US device was no longer state of the art, the Brazilian synchrotron would raise materials and plant cell study to a new level, thanks to the use of rays further up the energy spectrum that yield an exponentially greater brightness of image.

Sao Paulo is building a  Synchrotron 'Light Laboratory' at Campinas.

Sao Paulo is building a Synchrotron ‘Light Laboratory’ at Campinas.

Dalton Belchior Abdala, one of the researchers at LNLS, told the conference that the new synchrotron would unlock hitherto little-understood chemical processes and geoscientific secrets hidden in the soil that have a profound effect on agriculture. He said that future development of high-tech agriculture in Brazil could owe a huge debt to discoveries aided by this device, such as the interaction at atomic particle level between organic and inorganic agents, and their effect on crops.

The role of phosphates on plant and animal life and the part they may play in global warming has been studied in detail at LNLS, and includes a project on phosphates in the penguin rookeries of Antarctica, by a team from the Brazilian federal university of Viçosa.

Another potential project for study is the mineral enrichment of soils in which certain foodstuffs are grown, like the Brazilian black bean – a staple of the national diet. Bean plants habitually strip the soil of iron and zinc.

SyncLight 2015 conference is yet another example of the advanced schools concept (named ESPCA) pioneered by FAPESP (São Paulo Research Foundation) which as well as hosting the event, is a major donor to the Sirius project. These advanced schools bring together world experts for an intense, short period of knowledge sharing. More than 40 such events have been held, some of them addressed by Nobel Prize winners. Each event hosts around 100 students, half of whom are international. You can find out more about ESPC by clicking on the link here: espca.fapesp.br

Portuguese readers can read a longer report on the SyncLight event written by Brazilian journalist Diego Freire by clicking here.

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