Synchrotron cabal brings SA into the light

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South Africa has become a full member of the European ­Synchrotron Radiation Facility, a ­massive light source that can "see" into any material.

The synchrotron, based in Grenoble, France, emits X-rays around a circular tunnel the size of a stadium. (Peter Ginter)

 This allows the country access to technology not available on the continent.

The synchrotron, based in Grenoble, France, emits X-rays around a circular tunnel the size of a stadium. The wavelengths of the beam are so small that they can get between atoms in a material and scientists can deduce the behaviour of the material and characterise it on an atomic level.

The National Research Foundation (NRF) has signed an agreement with the facility, making it the 20th member, alongside 18 European countries and Israel. It will pay R4-million a year for the next five years, which includes associate membership costs and support for local scientists to visit the facility.

It "is a premier tool for any kind of modern scientific research", says Simon Connell, physics professor at the University of Johannesburg. It has applications in biosciences to monitor drug delivery; paleosciences because it makes it possible to characterise a fossil specimen without damaging it; and in industry, allowing the investigation of new materials and their properties.

Africa is the only continent without a synchrotron. Out of about 60 synchrotrons in the world, the ESRF is one of the few that can do this kind of precision science, Connell says.

"That is why we are willing to travel around the world to use these instruments," says Sasol's chief scientist, Bruce Anderson. "We can see what the structure of the material is and most importantly, because of the penetrating power of the X-rays, we can do that in conditions of very high temperature and fairly high pressure … such as [industrial] catalysts."

In palaeosciences, the facility allowed South Africans to visualise the brain of the Australopithecus sediba hominid, which resulted in a paper being published in the journal Science last year. This is the first time a synchrotron has been used to do this, the NRF says.

However, University of Cape Town structural biologist Trevor Sewell, who is using the facility to investigate enzymes and the possibility of using them as drug targets, says one of the most exciting things about South Africa's involvement in the facility is the chance to interact with other scientists.

"There are four other major structural biology institutions [on the Grenoble campus]. They have about 500 PhD-level biologists. It's not just about going to Grenoble to use the instrument. You also go there to interact with the people. It is a wonderful space and experience because it gives you incredible insight [into the ­scientific field]," he says.

Connell sees it as a "milestone in the process to an African light source". In 2004 a review of the South African physics landscape recommended that South Africa investigate the possibility of an African light source.

However, while he would not comment on the viability of a synchrotron on the continent, Anderson says they "cost about a billion euros, so you're talking about a project on the scale of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). It is a very big ask."

The SKA will be the largest scientific experiment on Earth. The €2-billion project will be hosted by Africa and Australia and funded by an international consortium.

By: Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is an award-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about participle physics, cosmology and everything in between. Read more from Sarah Wild

Source: Mail & Guardian