The Coming of the Synchrotron!


The end of an era is looming for many of Australia’s so-called “suitcase scientists”, but their colleagues in New Zealand should prepare to pack their bags for Melbourne.

In less than four years, Australia will have its own synchrotron – a $NZ240 million science research tool that is becoming the “default” method of research for some of the hottest fields in science.

A direct result will be an end to years of globe-trotting expeditions by many scientists from this part of the world, forced to travel to the northern hemisphere to access synchrotron facilities.

To be based at the Clayton campus of Melbourne’s Monash University, the new synchrotron will be made available for New Zealand scientific research, albeit on a merit-only basis.

Associate Professor James Metson, the man appointed as New Zealand’s representative on Australia’s National Scientific Advisory Committee (NSAC) for the synchrotron project, says our scientists too can expect to travel less than in the past as a result of this project.

However, it will be Australia’s flourishing synchrotron-based research programmes that will benefit most following the synchrotron’s completion in 2007. Currently, as many as 100 teams of researchers from around Australia travel to synchrotrons in other countries, at significant cost and inconvenience associated with this.

Typically, they would wait months to gain a few days’ use of an overseas synchrotron, and work around the clock when they finally get access.

Dr Metson is predicting strong interest in the synchrotron from New Zealand scientists, and a users meeting is planned to be held in September this year. The meeting will familiarize potential New Zealand users with the design and capabilities of the Australian ring, and discuss priorities for New Zealand’s use of the facility.

“I would hope to get 50-60 people to the meeting,” says Dr Metson. “But it’s important to remember that we have some distance to go in developing a New Zealand user community and no guaranteed access to the synchrotron.

We do have ‘a seat at the table’ however, and what will happen is that over the next few years, the model for New Zealand’s involvement will be developed through the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology.”

Dr Metson, who frequently uses overseas synchrotrons in his work with the University of Auckland’s Department of Chemistry, and the MacDiarmid Institute, says there is “considerable goodwill” towards our science community from across the Tasman. He doesn’t believe it will be a struggle for New Zealand scientists to get access to the synchrotron.

“I have every confidence that New Zealand science will be competitive when it comes to the allocation of beam-line time at the synchrotron.

After all we are already successful in obtaining time on European and North American facilities. Provided we have a reasonable access mechanism in place, New Zealanders will get their opportunities.”

Examples of New Zealand research projects that could benefit from the Australian synchrotron include work in the area of molecular bio-discovery and biomolecule crystallography. Given the interest here in nanotechnology, and electronic materials material science will be another likely candidate, Dr Metson says.

However, he says no one should have any expectations that New Zealand’s access to the Melbourne synchrotron will bring “Eureka!” type discoveries.

“I don’t think there are any quick answers in science, but what is important if you look at the Australian examples, is that critical results are being obtained from synchrotrons.

“That doesn’t mean a magic answer came from a single visit. It means that the groups involved developed their science based on the results obtained from the synchrotron, and that those results were critical in, for example, analysing the structures of the molecules they were making, and the molecules they were targeting.”

A synchrotron produces fine beams of extremely bright light across a spectrum from the infra-red to the hard X-ray region. This radiation can be used to investigate the structure of molecules and matter, and is used in drug design, medical imaging, materials research, fundamental spectroscopy and more.

However, of itself, the synchrotron’s intense light source is of no use, says Dr Metson.

“To use that radiation for applications such as protein crystallography, x-ray lithography, or various material science applications based on crystallography and x-ray absorption studies, you require dedicated beam lines and instrumentation to utilise that radiation.

“The Melbourne synchrotron will have the capacity to support more than 30 such beam lines, and one of the major tasks facing the NSAC will be to match these beam lines to the demand for specific applications.”

While the 2007 launch of the synchrotron can’t come soon enough for the scientific communities here and in Australia, that date is “frighteningly close” according to Dr Metson.

“It is actually a very tight timeline and there are many considerations,” he says, “including the selection of the initial eight or ten beam lines and ensuring that they are a very good match to the user community.”

Exactly how the beam line applications will be selected is among the detail yet to be worked out.

“The NSAC certainly has an oversight role in that, but it’s also clear that you cannot answer to everybody’s wishes in the configuration so that some tough decisions will have to be made,” he says.

“On the other hand, there are perhaps 10 ports to be filled initially from a potential 30, so there’s considerable opportunity for future growth. This is a very rapidly developing area of science, and we cannot tell in 2003 what new techniques will be cutting edge by the time 2007 comes round.”

Dr Metson says New Zealand’s exact role will evolve over time, but he is already adamant that this country should not restrict itself for example to the development of a single beam line.

“There have been suggestions that New Zealand should build a beam line by itself, but that would be the most restrictive thing we could do. This country’s interests lie across at least seven of the 10 most likely beam line applications. What is more important for New Zealand is the breadth of access to the synchrotron, rather than any concept of ownership of a specific facility or instrument,” he says.

However, while there is much detail yet to be worked out, Dr Metson is in no doubt about the overall value of the Melbourne synchrotron to New Zealand’s scientific community.

“Science advances most easily and most rapidly when you have many minds contributing – when you have international collaboration.

Synchrotrons are ideal vehicles for this. They provide a working laboratory where scientists from many different disciplines mix. You can have protein crystallographers working directly alongside infrared spectroscopy specialists and alongside people interested in environmental science and so on.

“I’ve long been an advocate of New Zealand’s wider involvement in these sorts of facilities because I think it’s not difficult to see the potential and the power that is there, and to see the need for us to use these techniques more widely,” Dr Metson says.

“Given New Zealand’s geographic location it is critical that New Zealand scientists – particularly our younger scientists who don’t have international collaborative networks set up, or are just developing them – should have some means of ready access. The Melbourne facility will provide a great opportunity for that.”

Right: An artist’s impression of the synchrotron to be based at Monash University’s Clayton Campus, Melbourne.