Light offers a hugely powerful tool to scientists and engineers. It allows many different kinds of sophisticated analyses on a vast array of materials, including solids, liquids and gases.

But the light produced at the Diamond Light Source is no ordinary light — this is synchrotron radiation, which gives x-ray, ultraviolet and infrared beams. The x-rays are 100 billion times brighter than a standard laboratory x-ray tube.

The Diamond Light Source, which opened in 2007 at Harwell Campus, represents the biggest scientific investment in the UK for 40 years.

Phase I cost £263m; Phase II, operational by 2012, will cost £120m; Phase III has just been funded and by 2017, will cost a further £100m.

Diamond is the new and improved successor to the UK’s first synchrotron at Daresbury in Cheshire. The project is a joint venture between the Science and Technology Facilities Council, STFC, and the Wellcome Trust, funded 86 per cent by STFC and 14 per cent by Wellcome.

Diamond works by firing electrons from a gun, accelerating them, then sending them round a huge storage ring almost 600 metres in diameter, in a vacuum, at near the speed of light.

The whole aim is to produce a beam as intense and narrow as possible. Diamond’s ellipsoid beam is 80 microns wide and seven microns high at its widest point. A human hair’s diameter is 40 microns.

Experimental units, lying at a tangent to the ring and known as beamlines, collect and use the synchrotron light. The current 18 beamlines are scheduled to become 32 by 2017. Maximum capacity is 40.

Oxford University’s Professor Dave Stuart is director of Life Sciences at Diamond and described some of the work being undertaken in structural biology.

He explained: “Because of the wavelengths and the sheer power of the light available, we can examine cells and molecules in far greater detail. We are looking at atomic level, the very atoms that make up a molecule.”

Cells in the body contain proteins and those cells communicate with each other using proteins. With the synchrotron, scientists can see the structures of proteins and the interactions of highly complex processes.

Research is also being done on improving foot-and-mouth vaccines. While outbreaks in UK are rare, they are very serious as cattle have to be culled to stop disease spreading. In tropical countries such as India and Asia, the problem is far worse, and the level of control far less.

Existing vaccines against foot-and-mouth are effective, but the vaccines are fragile. They need proper refrigeration or they lose their effect, and keeping the doses at the correct temperature in remote areas is difficult.

Diamond scientists are researching the structure of the foot-and-mouth virus to find the few key interactions within it and the chemical bond that holds it together.

Typically, the vaccines are a weak dose of the virus. Diamond is working with current vaccines to research where a few small but important changes will make the doses more stable and less temperature sensitive.

Prof Stuart said: “For the future, we want to build on our current research into imaging, looking at cells to see changes that mark transitions in diseases such as cancer. Electron microscopes can give very high magnification, but the electrons interact very strongly with the cells. Synchrotron light doesn’t.”

Probably the first industrial application of a synchrotron is Diamond’s Joint Engineering and Environmental Processing beamline, JEEP.

A team from Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science, led by Professor Alexander Korsunsky, is pioneering research into strains and stresses in materials used in aerospace applications.

He explained: “We are taking the materials themselves, or components made from those materials, and examining the atomic structure, the distances between atoms. The synchrotron light is so powerful, it can pass through several inches of metal, so we can look inside the sample or component, which we couldn’t do before.”

By simulating the strains and stresses which a material will undergo and taking measurements at regular intervals, the tests will show changes as the sample ages and when damage occurs.

This allows a more accurate prediction of when it will fail — vital information in the aerospace industry.

Material readouts are collected by a sophisticated detector, which was developed in-house.

“Our detector can collect as much information in one second as a normal process would collect in a week,” said Prof Korsunsky.

There are already existing models of what will happen to parts while in service. Prof Korsunsky’s team is developing processing analysis tools, comparing their simulated life cycles with the models to see how they correlate.

Interestingly, both professors spoke about commonality of interests, how research in one field can help another. Prof Korsunsky is collaborating with Dr Dermot O’Hare, a chemist, who is interested in very small particles.

He said: “The questions he asks are pretty much the same as ours.”

Name: Diamond Light Source Established: 2002 Chief executive: Professor Gerhard Materlik Number of staff: 380 Annual turnover: Confidential

Contact: 01235 778639 Web: