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The Australian Synchotron

The Australian Synchrotron is one of the nation's largest and most significant scientific facilities. It is a powerful machine of great utility that enables investigators to determine the structure and composition of all materials, including living specimens, with extremely high detail.

By Dr David Maddison

The Australian Synchrotron, located adjacent to the Monash University campus in Clayton, Victoria, was completed in 2007 at a cost of $221 million.

 Funding came from the Victorian Government with a contribution of $157 million, with additional funding of $50 million from other state government, university and research organisations and a $14 million dollar contribution from the Commonwealth government. About 65% of the initial funding was spent with local suppliers and contractors. As well, substantial design input was made by Australian scientists and engineers. The facility has an annual operating budget of $25 to $30 million.

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Bird's-eye view of the Australian Synchrotron (bottom right). Some idea of the size of this facility can be gleaned by comparing it with the oval in the grounds of the Monash University at left!

When not undergoing scheduled maintenance, the synchrotron runs 24 hours per day, year round, producing a wealth of scientific results and important industrial research.

It is one of about 50 similar devices around the world, although not all are as new or as advanced. Typically 3,500 scientists visit the facility each year and work on more than 600 experiments.

In order to probe a material’s structure the Synchrotron produces what is essentially very high quality light, tunable over a wide variety of wavelengths from the microwave part of the spectrum through to “hard” X-rays (see diagram).

Note that non-visible electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays is also considered a form of light.

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The range of wavelengths produced that the Australian Synchrotron. Image: Australian Synchrotron.

The beam is very intense with a brightness of around one million times greater than that of the Sun and the X-rays produced can be millions of times more intense than those produced by conventional X-ray tubes.

The Synchrotron is a state-of-the-art, third generation device. It was conceived at the outset to produce bright X-rays and other wavelengths of light compared with the first generation of such devices in which synchrotron radiation was utilised essentially as a by-product of particle accelerators..

Other characteristics of the generated light are that it is highly collimated meaning that the light rays in the beam all travel parallel to each other as in a laser beam.

The light beam is also polarised and different polarisation modes can be produced as required for different experiments. In addition, the light is also pulsed.

Information about the structure and composition of matter is revealed by the way the light beam interacts with the object under investigation.

The beam may be absorbed, transmitted, refracted or diffracted by the object and by carefully measuring the beam properties after it has interacted with the test specimen, it is possible to determine its structure and composition.

The Synchrotron is used by Australian and New Zealand scientists and industrial researchers and by many other scientists from around the world. These scientists and associated staff are extremely dedicated and enthusiastic about their work in this facility. To accommodate the many visiting scientists there is an accommodation block currently under construction.

What is a synchrotron?

As described on the Australian Synchrotron website, in simple terms, a synchrotron is a very large, circular, megavoltage machine about the size of a cricket ground. From outside, the Australian Synchrotron, for example, looks very much like a roofed football stadium. But on the inside, it’s very different. Instead of grass and seating, there is a vast, circular network of interconnecting tunnels and high tech apparatus.

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Schematic view of the Australian Synchrotron. Image: Australian Synchrotron.

Synchrotrons are a type of particle accelerator and when used to accelerate electrons, can produce intense beams of light, a million times brighter than the sun. The light is produced when high-energy electrons are forced to travel in a circular orbit inside the synchrotron tunnels by ‘synchronised’ application of strong magnetic fields with very powerful electromagnets.

The electron beams travel at just under the speed of light – about 299,792 kilometres per second. The intense light they produce is filtered and adjusted to travel into experimental workstations, where the light reveals the innermost, sub-microscopic structure of materials under investigation, from human tissue to plants to metals and more.

With this new knowledge that synchrotron science provides about the molecular structure of materials, researchers can invent ways to tackle diseases, make plants more productive and metals more resilient – among many other beneficial applications of synchrotron science.

More technical information about how the Australian Synchrotron and other similar facilities work is available from the ‘ABOUT US/Our facilities’ section of the website.

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