Aussie super microscope gets Swiss know-how

The synchrotron has many scientific and medical applications Jacopo Pasotti

Swiss scientists have taken part in the creation of an intense light source that is expected to transform medical and scientific imaging in Australia.

This content was published on May 31, 2007

The Australian Synchrotron is a type of super microscope whose intense light beams can be used to probe surfaces in much finer detail than X-rays.

The Australian government has high hopes for the SFr200 million ($164 million) facility, the first of its kind on the continent. The project is due to officially open in July this year, but the first experiments started last month.

The synchrotron, which is the size of a football pitch, works by accelerating electrons close to the speed of light.

These are then deflected through magnetic fields, creating extremely bright x-ray, infrared and ultra-violet beams that can be used to probe the structure of matter and materials. In fact, synchrotrons are so powerful that single atoms can be viewed.

The new instrument will be used to help develop advanced materials such as ceramics and nanomaterials. Other applications include forensics, the production and testing of micro-devices, and the study of plant cell structures.

It will also be useful for the pharmaceutical industry and in medicine.

Switzerland already has a similar synchrotron at its Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) at Villigen, near Zurich and Swiss expatriate researchers have been helping to create the Australian machine.

"I have always enjoyed building technological instruments," said Daniel Häusermann, a physicist who has been in Melbourne, home of the new facility, for more than a year.

Häusermann was responsible for designing and building the Imaging and Medical Therapy beamline, which will enable new and advanced methods for X-ray imaging such as those used in cancer detection and diagnosis.

A high-powered light beam will scan the human body looking for diseased cells.

"It will be very useful to see if all the cancer has been completely removed after surgery," said Häusermann, adding that patients would only be exposed to a hundredth of the radiation of conventional X-rays.

More opportunities

For the physicist from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, there are many advantages to being in Australia.

"In Australia there are many more opportunities for researchers and scientists, I only miss the good wine," he said.

However, Swiss involvement goes beyond the scientists employed in Australia.

Last May, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Australian synchrotron scientists and the Swiss Light Source (SLS) synchrotron group, part of the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI).

The agreement paves the way for an exchange of ideas and people between the two facilities. The SLS will also be building an SFr420,000 X-ray detector for Australia.

A key factor in this accord has been the Swiss-Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI), one of the largest in Australia.

According to the president of the Victorian SACII chapter, Thomas Schmocker, the deal highlights Switzerland's growing influence in the international high technology market.

For his part, Häusermann is pleased that his research has concrete applications.

"What I used to do was very abstract, I was dealing with planets and materials," he said. "Building the beamline has a direct use for society."


Key facts

The Australian synchrotron facility is about 125 metres wide and provides over 12,000 square metres of flexible floor space.
The storage ring of the synchrotron inside the building will be about 67 metres across.
It will have nine beamlines initially, with space for at least 30.

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In brief

The synchrotron accelerates electrons to almost the speed of light. As the electrons are deflected through magnetic fields they emit bright light.

This light is used for looking at materials in sub-microscopic detail and for the manufacture of small, precise materials. A synchrotron is often called a super microscope.

The first synchrotron was built in the 1950s. The ones in Australia and at PSI are third-generation synchrotrons.

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