Come shine at the Diamond Light Source

The UK synchrotron seeks more university groups to set up second homes at the site to create a genuine research campus

January 15, 2015

Source: Diamond Light Source

The No 1 detectors agency: building a genuine research campus is the aim

The Harwell Science and Innovation Campus may be a campus in name, but Andrew Harrison readily admits that it is not yet one in spirit.

But the chief executive of Diamond Light Source aims to change that by encouraging some of the UK’s top research teams in the physical and life sciences to part-locate at the UK’s national synchrotron, which is based alongside a handful of other “big machines” such as the ISIS neutron source and the Central Laser Facility “in a field in south Oxfordshire”.

Synchrotrons bend streams of electrons in magnetic fields to generate beams of electromagnetic radiation – often X-rays – which can be used to study the structures and properties of a wide range of materials, from proteins and pathogens to engineering components and archaeological artefacts.

Diamond, which opened in 2007, attracted 3,000 users last year alone. About a quarter were from industry (which pay for access) or involved industry-academic collaborations (which are given free access in return for publishing their findings).

Servicing the needs of industry is very much part of the rationale for the £260 million investment made by the government and the Wellcome Trust (split 86 per cent to 14 per cent) in building the world’s largest medium-energy synchrotron – as well as their £40 million contribution towards annual running costs and upgrades required to keep its technology at the cutting edge.

Harrison describes Diamond as “part of the R&D chain in the pharmaceutical industry. Without us, major multinationals wouldn’t want to be located in the UK.”

But contrary to his initial expectations based on his own “traditional ivory tower” background, industry also contributes significantly to the development of the synchrotron’s scientific agenda. The “hard-nosed” companies that just “come in, pay their money and want their result”, he says, have driven huge improvements in the pace and scale of analysis that Diamond is able to carry out, which is a boon to academics.

Moreover, Harrison notes, industry also has lots of “really interesting problems”, whose scientific fundamentals it is often keen to explore with academics, and this frequently drives the development of new techniques.

This harmonious relationship with industry is also enjoyed by Thomas Sorensen, one of the senior scientists presiding over Diamond’s “beamlines” (the approximately two dozen labs where the detectors are located). Harrison likens Sorensen and his fellow principal beamline scientists to university professors in their levels of experience and responsibility.

Sorensen says he spends four days a week assisting users – which Harrison compares to teaching – but adds that he doesn’t “drag his feet through the week” to get to the fifth, when he is free to conduct his own research – into how calcium levels in heart muscles, which regulate beating, are controlled.

Sorensen also has a postdoctoral researcher and co-supervises three PhD students. Each beamline is assigned two part-funded PhD studentships, and the students typically spend about a year there. The facility also offers 30 paid undergraduate summer placements and has some 10 senior joint positions with universities.

The synchrotron has also begun to attract university research groups to part-locate on its site. Among them is a team of some 20 engineers from the University of Manchester, who get “priority access to one of the best instruments there is for looking at problems in imaging”. Harrison is eager to attract more top groups to enter into such strategic alliances, thereby transforming Diamond and the adjacent Rutherford Appleton Laboratory into a genuine campus in whose canteens, within “a few” years, “you will sit alongside people from universities all over the UK”.

He is currently having discussions with “several key universities”. Some approached him, he says, and some he targeted following a thought process along the lines of: “Here is an area that will be amazing in five years; which university has the right group to work with us on that to really optimise what we have?”

Harrison denies that forming such exclusive alliances runs counter to the ethos of a national facility. Although privileged access to Diamond puts the groups involved “ahead of the pack”, the collaborations are time-limited and, at the end, “we get a much better beamline that then gets released into the wild and the whole community gets access”. The Manchester team, for example, is pioneering ways to study engineering materials under real-world operating conditions, such as in furnaces.

He also points out that the best groups in a particular field are not necessarily located in the golden triangle of London and Oxbridge.

“The door is open to everyone,” Harrison says. “Make me an offer.”

In numbers

£260m invested by government and the Wellcome Trust in building the Diamond Light Source

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