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Lights on in Saskatoon

Canada's newest piece of Big Science prepares to probe deeply into just about anything...

by Michael Smith

Tucked into a corner of the rolling campus of the University of Saskatchewan, the Canadian Light Source looks like nothing so much as a small-town hockey arena. There are the same high, blank walls on three sides, the cramped parking lot, the glass front covered with what somebody thought was a decorative steel mesh, and the low-rise brick building stuck on one corner where - if hockey, not science, were on the agenda - you might buy a ticket.

From the inside, high on the catwalk that overlooks it on three sides, the Canadian Light Source is an octopus's dream - all snaky cables and intertwined tubing going every which way, held fixed and rigid in steel and aluminum bondage. The guts of it are hidden inside curved, foot-thick concrete walls, and what's visible includes the power supplies and the cooling system. Bill Thomlinson, director of the Canadian Light Source, says that unless you know what you're looking at, it's hard to make sense of what you see. The most common reaction, he adds, is that it would make a great set for the climactic fight scene in a James Bond movie.

But there's no hockey here, and James Bond, unless he has picked up a PhD we haven't heard about, won't be performing any derring-do. The Canadian Light Source, usually abbreviated to CLS, is Canada's newest piece of Big Science, a $174-million project to give Canadian scientists a cutting-edge tool for research ranging from archaeology to protein chemistry and from dentistry to zoology. Technically, the CLS is a 2.9 giga-electron volts "third-generation" synchrotron, one of only 17 either in existence or planned. Dr. Thomlinson says it's expected to be better than all but a couple in the world, and competitive even with those in some areas.

Sometimes described as a Swiss Army knife for science, a synchrotron is a device for creating astonishingly intense beams of light that can be used to probe deep inside almost anything, showing details hidden to other methods of investigation. Saskatchewan veterinary science professor Gregg Adams says, and he's only partly joking, that he wants to capture three-dimensional images of "the egg inside the follicle inside the ovary inside a llama" while the animal is still alive and in rude good health.

Whether or not he ever gets those pictures - and Dr. Adams admits it would be stretching the limits of the machine - the CLS is expected to help push back the boundaries of knowledge in hundreds of areas. In the process it's bringing research expertise to Canada (and in some cases back to Canada), creating exciting opportunities for young scientists here at home and is expected to bring solid economic benefits to the Saskatoon region.

For those who closed their physics texts after high school with a palpable feeling of relief, here's some basic information to help understand the CLS. First, the electron. It's one of the particles that make up ordinary matter. It's enormously tiny. And it carries a minute electrical charge. In fact, the electricity that powers the lamp you're reading this by is nothing but a flow of billions of electrons.

Back in the 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell showed that electricity and magnetism are aspects of the same thing. So it's not surprising that magnets can attract electrons . . . and that fact is one of the keys to understanding the CLS. If you take a series of electromagnets and set them up so that you can turn them on and off very rapidly, you can make electrons move. First one magnet draws them, then turns off while a second a bit further away pulls them, and so on. The speed of the electrons accelerated in this way can be very rapid indeed - almost the speed of light.

Second, the photon. The light you read by is nothing but photons. So are X-rays, the ultraviolet lights that make your white shirt glow in trendy nightclubs, and the heat from a stove burner. But what's the relationship?

It turns out that if an electron that is moving in a straight line - following the iron dictates of Newton's laws of motion - is forced to curve by, say, a powerful electromagnet, it will lose energy. That energy is encapsulated in a photon, which will scream off at the speed of light (what else?) in the original direction. And if there are billions of electrons, all forced to move at the same time, you get billions of photons - a very bright light.

The challenge will be to live up to the facility's promise, says Peter MacKinnon.

Seem puzzling, arcane, high-tech? Well, nature uses the same process to produce one of its most beautiful special effects - the northern lights. Electrically charged particles from the sun approach the earth in a straight line. But when they hit the earth's magnetic field, they're forced into a spiral motion and begin shedding the photons that dance for us on a winter's night.

So here's how the CLS works. First, billions of electrons are prodded to high speeds in what's called a linear accelerator, or linac. The University of Saskatchewan has had a linac for three decades, as a research tool in its own right; it was an obvious step to convert it into the first stage of the CLS.

From the linac, the thin beam of electrons - about the thickness of a human hair - speeds into a ring-shaped structure where microwave radiation is used to give them even more energy. Every six-tenths of a second, the speeding electrons are slammed with 10,000 jolts of microwave radiation. "It's like hitting them with a baseball bat 10,000 times every point-six of a second," explains CLS business director Rob Slinger.

From the first ring, the now highly energetic electrons are sent into a larger ring - the storage ring, 171.5 metres in circumference - where they're guided in a multi-sided near-circle by 24 "guide" electromagnets, as well as by 108 smaller focusing electromagnets. This is where the action is, because every time the electrons pass one of the guide magnets they have to change direction, forcing them to emit photons in a beam millions of times brighter than sunlight.

With the appropriate equipment, dubbed a beamline, the emitted light can be captured, tuned, focused and used for an astonishing range of things, both for basic research and for a host of industrial applications. Playing on the obvious pun, publicity for the CLS sometimes calls it "Canada's Field of Beams."

In principle, the CLS could have a beamline for every guide magnet and still more to use light that's created when the focusing magnets herd the electrons back into line. Initially, however, only seven are being built, with more to be added later as demand grows and money becomes available. With luck, says CLS director Dr. Thomlinson, at least six of the beamlines will be up and running when the CLS "takes first light" early in 2004. The CLS has started testing the beamlines, and they require commissioning by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The opening date for the CLS is now scheduled for the spring.

University of Saskatchewan President Peter MacKinnon says, like most of us, he comes to this project "every bit the amateur." A former dean of law at the university, he is also every bit the enthusiast. The CLS, he maintains, is "a fabulous project," "extremely exciting," and "a tremendous opportunity."

This isn't just the usual presidential happy talk - the CLS represents an opportunity to put the U of S on Canada's scientific map and Professor MacKinnon is all for it. "If we're serious about doing science in Canada," he says, "it's very important to have the capacity represented by an advanced synchrotron."

Well, yes. Of course. But why Saskatoon, why U of S?

The CLS had been a gleam in the eye for some of Canada's scientists for years, but in the mid-1990s the discussion began to heat up, until the federal funding councils agreed it should be built and held a competition to decide where to put the beast.

In the competition, it turned out that U of S had the best cards. First, it had the linac, which meant the CLS could be built more cheaply than elsewhere. Second, it had the cadre of people around the linac, who were experienced in working with high-energy electrons. Third, it had support from local governments, including commitments to put up some of the cash to build the machine.

What also weighed in the discussion, and in the buzz the CLS is creating, is that U of S has amassed an interesting collection of centres of expertise: the usual physics, chemistry, and biology blokes, of course, but also a medical school, a school of veterinary medicine and a college of agriculture. There's also a flourishing plant biotechnology community that's associated with the university and the National Research Council.

"A lot of the most interesting life sciences work is being done at the intersection of human and animal and plant life," says President MacKinnon, and U of S has scientists on every corner of that crossroads.

As usual in Canada, after winning the bid, U of S had to raise the money. The university owns the CLS (and will pay the $3-million a year power bill) but most of the construction costs came from a range of contributors. In 1999, the Canada Foundation for Innovation cut the first cheque, a $56.4 million contribution toward building costs. That was slightly more than a third of the $141 million needed to build it (the LINAC accounted for the other $33 million of the $174 million price-tag). Unusually in this era of inter-provincial competition, three provinces - Ontario and Alberta as well as Saskatchewan - kicked in substantial amounts. The rest came from sources as disparate as the city of Saskatoon, the drug company Boehringer Ingelheim, and the Saskatchewan Power Corporation.

The challenge now, says Professor MacKinnon, is to "live up to the facility." A key part of that challenge is getting the money to run the machine, something that's not as straightforward as it might seem. To put together the annual $12.8-million operating budget for the next three years, the CLS has had to - in Dr. Thomlinson's words - "kludge together" support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the National Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the U of S. That's because there's no single federal agency that finances such national science projects as the CLS, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory or Vancouver's TRIUMF nuclear facility.

To secure operating money, CLS officials have to run from pillar to post, jumping through different hoops at each agency. What's more, the hoops at each agency are designed for individual research projects, meaning that some things - such as Dr. Thomlinson's pay cheque - aren't covered. (Luckily for Dr. Thomlinson, the U of S has no such restrictions, so his salary comes from its contribution.)

Peter MacKinnon and Dr. Thomlinson spent a week in Ottawa in late summer, trying to persuade bureaucrats and politicians that what's needed is a central funding agency with a different set of rules. The response, says Dr. Thomlinson, was warm but baffled. No one knows exactly how to break out of the impasse.

"You're finding the desire, the will to go forward, but the path isn't there," he says. "It takes someone to be a champion for such a new thought . . . and we're searching for that."

Canadian scientists already use synchrotrons, of course, but they've had to go elsewhere - the U.S., Europe, Japan, even Brazil. Having our own machine means that much of this work will revert to Canada. For instance, mineralogist Jeanne Percival of Natural Resources Canada wants to use the CLS to study how uranium binds to clay - research with important implications for the way uranium mining is done. Biochemist Michele Loewen of the National Research Council is using offshore synchrotrons to study the behaviour of proteins, and she's looking forward to doing the work in Canada. And geochemist Alan Anderson of St. Francis Xavier University wants to use the CLS to study how ore deposits are formed by hot fluids, which may shed light on where to develop new mines.

The CLS will attract - indeed, is already attracting - researchers from around the world to the quiet city of Saskatoon. Some will come for a few weeks every now and then; when the machine is completely up and running, officials think it will draw something like 2,000 scientific pilgrims each year. They'll rent hotel rooms, take cabs, eat in restaurants and maybe even take in a junior-league hockey game, adding to Saskatoon's bottom line.

Professor MacKinnon says the CLS - and the visits from all those top-flight Canadian and international scientists - adds an indisputable zing to the intellectual atmosphere, too. "It's going to generate a huge amount of excitement and energy on our campus," he says.

Others plan to set down roots in the Prairie soil. Dr. Thomlinson, a world leader in synchrotron science, moved from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, to take the reins on the Prairies. A recent round of Canada Research Chair appointments brought three renowned synchrotron researchers to Saskatoon - cell biologist Thomas Haas and geological scientists Ingrid Pickering and Graham George. Biophysicist Dean Chapman, until recently at the Illinois Institute of Technology, joined the U of S anatomy and cell biology department - a bit of cross-cultural experimentation he hopes will be fertile ground for his science.

University officials say the prospect of the Canadian Light Source has brought more than 25 scientists to Saskatoon, all told. In fact, there are now 77 scientists, graduate students, postdoc fellows and researchers on campus who use synchrotron light in their research, up from two researchers and a handful of grad students when the project won final approval in 1997.

U of S is not the only beneficiary. Universities pretty much from coast to coast have been attracting new faculty with the bright shiny lure of the CLS. Chemist Farideh Jalilehvand, a new assistant professor at the University of Calgary, came north from California's Stanford Synchrotron Facility to be near, if not at, the CLS. Dr. Jalilehvand did her postdoctoral studies in Sweden, where she and her colleagues had to fly to Stanford every six months for an orgy of measurements, before going home to analyse their new-found data. Compared to that, she says, the 450 kilometres to Saskatoon is nothing. She says at least a dozen new researchers have been hired by universities other than U of S, specifically to take advantage of the synchrotron.

Dean Chapman has spent the past few years trying to use synchrotron light to investigate medical questions. When he made the decision to move to Saskatoon, his Illinois colleagues kidded him about the "cold and barren northlands." But he's excited by the possibilities inherent in having the CLS, the medical school, the veterinary college and the agricultural school all on one campus. Dr. Chapman thinks the set-up is unique and fascinating. "For the medical applications, I can't imagine a better synergy," he says. "We could dominate the world in this."

World domination, even in a single field, is a noble goal, and one that Dr. Chapman and his new colleagues may well achieve. But for the CLS to achieve its full potential, more beamlines must come on line, more scientists need to get involved, more research studies have to be designed to use the machine's immense power. And, perhaps most importantly, Ottawa will have to find a way to hack through the funding jungle and create a simpler way to pay the Light bill.

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