Education

THE POWERHOUSE

They’re building a synchrotron in Saskatoon. Here’s why you should care.

BRIAN BERGMAN January 21 2002
Education

THE POWERHOUSE

They’re building a synchrotron in Saskatoon. Here’s why you should care.

BRIAN BERGMAN January 21 2002

THE POWERHOUSE

Education

They’re building a synchrotron in Saskatoon. Here’s why you should care.

BRIAN BERGMAN

To appreciate the $ 174-million synchrotron project now under construction at the University of Saskatchewan, it helps to think big—and then, to think very, very small. The building housing the

synchrotron, a giant particle accelerator that turns electrons into light, spans an area roughly the size of a Canadian Football League field. Synchrotron light is incredibly intense, a billion times brighter than the sun, to be precise. Fiarnessing that light allows scientists to peer into the

atomic structure of samples as small as the width of a human hair. What they learn along the way holds the potential to eradicate diseases, develop life-saving drugs and cleanse the environment.

Since the technology was first pioneered in the late 1960s, more than 40 synchrotrons have been built, including 10 in the United States, more than a dozen in Japan and several in Europe. The Saskatchewan synchrotron, though, is Canadas first— shamefully overdue in the opinion of many scientists, but a cause for celebration all the same. “Ifs a great thrill to see this finally happening,” says Michael Bancroft, a University of Western Ontario chemist who lobbied for a Canadian synchrotron for more than 20 years and has overseen the Saskatchewan project in its early stages. “We have the potential to do some outstanding science that is really going to make a difference.”

The synchrotron, officially known as the Canadian Light Source (CLS), is Canada’s largest science project in more than 30 years. It finally got the green light thanks to a $56.4-million grant, the biggest single award to date from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, an independent corporation established by the federal government in 1997. Still, the project has gone largely unnoticed outside of Saskatchewan. Asked if he’s disappointed with the lack of fanfare, the foundation’s president, David Strangway, responds in the affirmative. “It’s important that people realize this project will have a massive impact,” says Strangway. “It’s bringing people back to Canada and allowing others to stay here and do research they never could have dreamed of before.”

Those sentiments are echoed by University of Saskatchewan president Peter MacKinnon. The university has a special stake in the success of the CLS, scheduled to begin operation in January, 2004. In addition to contributing $7.3 million in capital funding, the university owns CLS Inc., a not-for-profit corporation that will oversee day-to-day operations. The university is actively recruiting faculty with expertise in synchrotron research and will host as many as 2,000 visiting scientists and graduate students a year once the facility is up and running. MacKinnon is also looking to the CLS to enhance the institution’s overall reputation. “Every university,” he says, “has to ask itself: what is it that we do where we can expect to be among the best in the world? I think the research the synchrotron supports will form a critical part of this university’s future.”

The Saskatchewan synchrotron may be a scientific wonder, but these days it looks a lot like a giant roller-coaster, albeit one

without cars or riders. As Bancroft took a visitor on a recent tour, workmen noisily assembled metalwork and new piping. From a platform overlooking the facility, Bancroft pointed to the floor where more than 700 concrete piles were sunk up to 30-m deep to eliminate vibration when the synchrotron operates. He gestured towards the eight main roof trusses, each weighing 67 tonnes, that were used instead of traditional pillars to give an unobstructed span for the synchrotron’s beamlines. Bancroft also pointed out the huge heating and ventilation pipes, a crucial feature since the facility must be kept at a constant temperature—no mean feat in a climate that can experience wild fluctuations in the course of a day, and dip down to -40° C in winter. “There aren’t too many other civilized places on earth with these kinds of conditions,” chuckled Bancroft.

The guts of the synchrotron, the doughnut-shaped booster and storage rings in which the electrons circulate, have yet to be assembled. These will be fixed at ground level, hidden behind thick con-

crete shieldings. A linear accelerator feeds the electron stream into the booster rings. By this point, the electrons are already travelling at nearly the speed of light, but their velocity will increase tenfold as they travel around the ring. The electrons are then fed into the storage ring, where synchrotron light is produced as bending magnets deflect the electron beam. Each set of bending magnets is connected to an experimental station, or beamline. Machines filter or intensify the light to get the precise settings needed for experiments.

The Saskatchewan facility will be one of only a handful of third-generation synchrotrons in the world, providing light a thousand times more intense than earlier models. A brighter light means faster experiments, using ever-smaller sample sizes. The CLS will include seven beamlines to begin with, gradually building up to a maximum of 30 over perhaps a decade. The restricting factor is money: each beamline costs up to $7 million to construct.

Synchrotron research is an eclectic affair. To date, it has focused mainly on materials science, leading to improvements in, among other things, athletic shoes, dental fillings and airplane wings. The next wave, and catching up fast, is what is known as protein crystallography. The synchrotron allows researchers to study the exact structure of proteins such as hormones, enzymes and antibodies, providing crucial information for designing new drugs and therapies. This could, for example, hasten the development of a protein inhibitor that regulates blood-sugar production in the cells of diabetics.

Other potential breakthroughs include new screening tests for breast and lung cancer, as well as radiation therapy for inoperable brain tumours in infants. University of Manitoba chemist Kathleen Gough has been working at American synchrotrons, examining molecular changes associated with Alzheimer’s. “Everybody knows this is a widespread curse,” says Gough. “But we don’t have a good handle on all the causes. Are they genetic or environmental? Or does it take a combination of the two?” Gough is looking forward to having easier access to a synchrotron much closer to home. “It’s good news for all of us,” she says. “The quality of light at this facility allows for techniques that were unheard of before.”

One unique aspect of the CLS is that 25 per cent of beamtime is being dedicated to industrial clients, far more than at any other synchrotron. In part, it’s a matter of economics: industry is willing to pay up to $40,000 a day for immediate access to a beamline, money that will help offset the facility’s $ 13-million annual operating budget. Already, Saskatchewan mining companies are looking to the synchrotron to give them crucial information about arsenic levels in mine-tailings ponds and how to clean them up. Alberta energy compa-

nies are similarly eager to learn more about the chemistry behind pipeline corrosion, extracting oil from the tar sands and reducing sulphur content in gasoline. Jeffrey Cutler, who serves as CLS’s liaison with industry, spends a lot of his time brainstorming with private-sector scientists. “I’m trying to show them the opportunities, get their brains firing,” says Cuder. “Really, it’s as limidess as one’s imagination.”

On the other hand, Cuder acknowledges that a possible obstacle to attracting both industrial and academic researchers is the CLS’s location. “By far, the majority of potential users are in Ontario,” he says. “For them, it may be as easy to go to San Francisco as come to Saskatoon. What can we do to get them here? That’s a really tough sell.”

So how did this scientific behemoth end up in a smallish city on the relatively remote northern Prairie? According to Bancroft, it was due to a combination of timing and impressive financial support from Saskatchewan authorities after the project was approved in principle in the mid1990s. From the outset, there were two competing bids, one from the University of Western Ontario in London, which Bancroft headed, and the other from the University of Saskatchewan. “Because the Harris government was in the process of slashing and burning, it was impossible to get any significant support for the Ontario bid,” recalls Bancroft. By contrast, Saskatchewan sources ponied up $36.7 million, including $25 million from the provincial government. Eventually, the governments of Ontario and Alberta contributed nearly $10 million each to the project after Saskatoon had been selected.

Bancroft, who served as interim director of the CIA until last fall, believes concerns

about its location can be overcome as long as the university aggressively promotes the facility and attracts top-flight faculty. Already, there is evidence that the synchrotron is acting as a magnet for young researchers, many of whom had left Canada. Cutler, 39, a native of St. Thomas, Ont., who did his doctoral thesis at Western under Bancroft, is among them. Cutler had been working as a research scientist with the U.S. air force in Dayton, Ohio, when he got the offer to come to Saskatoon. “Quite simply,” he says, “I’m here because the synchrotron is here.”

That view is echoed by Katie Mitchell, 33, an Ottawa native who accepted a position with the University of Saskatchewan physics department last year after completing her post-doctoral work at Oxford University. Mitchell specializes in basic materials research that could lead to the development of smaller, more powerful computer chips as well as improved medical implants. “I applied to institutions across Canada,” says Mitchell, “but for me, the synchrotron really made the difference. It’s going to be a very stimulating environment.”

Not everyone on the Saskatchewan campus is so enthused. Last fall, several humanities professors held a special forum on the so-called corporatization of the university, where the synchrotron was a favourite target. Among the participants was Sandy Ervin, a professor of anthropology at the U of S since 1971. Ervin is upset that while money and resources are lavished on the basic sciences and megaprojects like the CLS, the humanities are enduring painful budget and manpower cuts. “What really matters is the quality of teaching in the classroom,” says Ervin. “This is a people’s university and we should be putting our efforts into training students, not getting caught up in this genuflection to corporate interests.”

The university’s president believes such concerns are misplaced. “The presence of an outstanding national laboratory will be a boost to the whole university,” says MacKinnon, who comes from a humanities background. “When people recognize a university as a centre for excellence, it is rarely limited to one or two disciplines. It tends to be infectious.” While the critics remain skeptical, MacKinnon maintains that the synchrotrons bright lights should be a beacon for everyone. E3