what is the Diamond Light Source? It is a huge scientific machine (covering the space of 5 football pitches) called a synchrotron which produces beams of light with different wavelengths. To do this the synchrotron has a particle accelerator where electrons travel close to the speed of light emitting electromagnetic rays or 'synchrotron light'. This can be used in various ways to study the gases, solids and liquids that make up our world. One approach is using the light in order to visualise objects in a similar way to a microscope. The difference is, instead of using visible light, X-rays are used.
So why are x-rays used? The smallest visible light wave length is 0.38 millionths of a metre (380nm) and with a microscope you can see detail down to 200nm. Any smaller than this then the light-wave would miss the object entirely and pass over it. However as x-rays are a similar size to atoms, you can see even smaller detail down to atomic levels.
When objects are hit by radiation (x-rays or light) it is diffracted, or the radiation 'bends' around the object, like shining visible light through a glass prism. However rather than using focussing and magnification to see x-ray detail like a microscope, this diffraction or scattering of light is measured using computers. You can work out what the object is and how big it is by how it has affected the path of the x-rays. This is similar to what happens when you put your finger directly under a fast running tap; the water sprays everywhere. Would your thumb have more effect than your little finger?
So how can this be used? One way is to visualise what proteins in your body look like, what their 'structure' is or how they are made up. Proteins tend to be a ‘globular’ shape, they look like a blob with dips in that form ‘pockets’ which can be important for the chemical reactions in the body.
Pharmaceutical companies use this in order to improve the design of their drugs, as if they know what the protein looks like, they can see how to make the chemicals in drugs ‘bind’ or fit into the ‘pockets’ on the protein. When chemicals bind to a protein they can affect how it works, or even stop it working entirely; a useful defence if that particular protein is involved in diseases like cancer. It’s like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, but we are changing the shape of the piece so it fits into the hole. This way better, more effective drugs can be designed.
The Diamond synchrotron has many other uses however and can tell us what many of the things in our planet look like or what they are made up of, rocks and minerals, or fossils. Alternatively it can help scientists in designing of new materials. Will the University of Edinburgh be able to produce superconductors with the help of Diamond? Or find better materials in which to store hydrogen fuel safely?
It can even help research into medical treatment. Imperial College London are playing “Hip Detective” using Diamond to study human tissue to work out why some people have an inflammatory reaction to artificial hips and not others, hopefully tailoring future treatment to individual patients needs.
Medicine, electronics and even fuel, Diamond the “Light of Science” is uncovering our molecular world and truly “illuminating the future” for science.
For more information, see the Diamond Light Source exhibit webpage