If you were to drive past Australian science's smartest new toy, it would be easy to mistake the large, circular building at 800 Blackburn Road, Clayton, for just another office complex. But inside, something spectacular is being produced light a million times brighter than the sun, light to which scientists from around the country are now drawn like moths. They're queuing to use the Australian Synchrotron, the largest such device in the Southern Hemisphere and one of about 40 worldwide. Researchers hope it will provide discoveries and answers across almost every field of science whether it's seeing how insects breathe, designing new drugs, cleaning up contaminated soil or beating dementia. "It lets us probe matter right down to its building blocks," says the facility's science director, Professor Robert Lamb.
Opened in July, the machine is an enormous, $A220 million microscope, built by the Victorian government with funding from research bodies and governments in Australia and New Zealand. It's capable of peering inside atoms, yet at first glance the synchrotron appears to be little more than a white-walled, ring-shaped tunnel. In the era of ever-shrinking gadgets, this machine stands out 67 m in diameter, it's roughly the size of a football field. Yet it's so sensitive that the temperature inside the building that houses it must be kept within a degree either side of 23°C. A massive cooling system runs ceaselessly, while the concrete floor on which the machine sits is insulated from vibration up to a meter thick and free of any building supports.
Sealed off when the synchroton is operating, behind the white walls are what look like the entrails of some enormous mechanical serpent a tangled chain of equipment, most prominently brightly colored magnets, some weighing 5 tons. Through the middle of this runs a vacuum tube 216 m long within which bunches of electrons zoom at 1 million laps a second almost the speed of light. It's when they are forced by the magnets to bend and change direction that the streams of subatomic particles which travel the equivalent of 50 times to the sun and back each day emit electromagnetic radiation, the precious synchrotron light. Selected into different wavelengths that are channeled down tubes called beam lines to laboratories set around the machine, that light will be used by researchers to examine processes and minute samples with a precision and at speeds unheard of in everyday labs.
Five beamlines are ready for use, and another four are being designed. One of those, to be devoted to medical imaging, will produce images vastly more detailed than conventional X-ray images. It could also be used in the treatment of patients: there have been promising results from international animal trials using synchrotron X rays to irradiate cancer tumors without affecting healthy surrounding tissue.
The five existing beamlines will swing into use from this month, when the first group of selected research teams arrive from Australia and New Zealand to tap into synchrotron radiation, which covers a broad spectrum including infrared, visible light and X rays. A handful of experts have already begun road-testing the device, and their projects are an early showcase of the dizzying range of topics set to be explored the infrared beamline, for instance, is being used to study mouse eggs in an effort to pinpoint the best time to fertilize human eggs in IVF; to investigate the facial-tumor disease that's killing Tasmanian devils; and to preserve historic documents. "I thought scientists would want to wait and see how well the synchrotron performs," says Mark Tobin, who oversees the infrared beamline's operation. "But they've been very keen to jump in the deep end and try it out for themselves."
The deep end of science is where Jose Varghese likes to be. Part of the pioneering team that in the mid '90s developed the anti-influenza drug Relenza one of only two drugs known to be effective against avian flu Varghese is now focusing on an enigmatic protein, amyloid beta, and what he suspects are its toxic effects on the brains of people with Alzheimer's. In the international race to uncover amyloid beta's molecular structure the crucial first step in finding out how to block its pathological effects synchrotron X rays are a crucial tool. The molecules are too small to be imaged individually, so Varghese must grow them into crystals, each just 1/10,000th the width of a human hair, which are then bombarded with X rays. The ways in which the crystals absorb or scatter the radiation give clues to their inner structure.
Last year the CSIRO structural biologist took a batch of crystals, the product of months of painstaking work, to a synchrotron in Japan, only to discover they'd been destroyed in transit. But such disappointments, as well as the increasing difficulty of taking biological samples across security-conscious international borders, are over for Australasian scientists now that they have a latest-generation synchrotron in their backyard. So are the frustrations of traveling to facilities in the U.S. or Europe for a few days of precious beam time, then flying home to wait months for another opportunity.
"We used to really be on the back foot," says Varghese. Now he need only make a half-hour drive from his laboratory in Melbourne's inner north. "What once took me several years to do you could probably do in a few months" at the new facility, Varghese says. Given that the synchrotron has a life span of around 30 years, there's plenty of time, then, for a lot of light and hopefully a great deal of illumination.