Gemma, just what is a Synchrotron?: Beam-Line Antics

Gemma and the Synchrotron World

Our  class at CUEF back in July was filled with interesting and diverse people.  In a previous post about our experience there (13/08/2010), I spoke about  the varied countries from which our classmates hailed.  I admit that we often gravitated towards those students who were english-speaking, and it was our luck to have Gemma Newby in our class.  Young, blonde, green-eyed and from Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, Gemma was often on the same tram that we were as we made our  way to our CUEF class at Domaine Universitaire.  We fell into conversations about life in France, Great Britain and the U.S., and what we were doing in Grenoble.

Gemma is a doctoral student from the University of Reading in the UK working on her thesis and is also doing research at ESRF.  (As of last week she as good as has her doctorate which will be awarded in December at  graduation.)  She invited us on a little «field trip» to visit the Synchrotron to see where she works.  We had to schedule a time to do this; it wasn’t going to be a matter of just showing up at the door.  After providing her with our passport numbers and personal info like birth date and birth place,  security had to run a check on us before we could be approved.

August 20th dawned drizzly and gray.  The perfect day to make a trip to the Synchrotron on Bus 34.  We met Gemma and her friend Will, who was visiting her from England, at la gare routière.  After about a 15 minute bus trip, we arrived at the main gate and  stopped to get our visitor badges.  At first, the security guard could not find my name on the list of approved visitors, but after some calls and furtive whispering, I was admitted.

Gemma has been at the Synchrotron since April 2010 and works principally on “the Beamline.”  If you read that and thought, Star-Trek, you’d be following the same logic I had.  The beamline refers to the synchrotron light produced that consists of very bright x-rays as thin as hair and unbelievably intense.  This x-ray beam that is produced is a thousand billion times brighter than the beam produced by a hospital X-ray machine. (It’s like the solar eclipse, DON’T look at it or else you’ll be moved to the “other side” sooner than anticipated!)  These super-microscopes can show matter down to atoms and molecules.  As you might expect, this technology is instrumental in many fields including earth science, physics, chemistry, nanoscience, and health.  There is no way that I can explain all that goes on at this facility.  The link  provided at AboutSynchrotron is fairly unintimidating, so if you go there, I think you’ll  enjoy learning about what goes on with a beamline.

Gemma and her Vanna White impression

Gemma gave us the royal tour of the facility.  The building looks like an industrial factory with concrete floors and research  laboratories along the maze of corridors.  ESRF accommodates the distances the workers have to traverse with a supply of vélos (bicycles.)  Scientists and technicians use these vélos to get around the experimental hall’s 844m (2769ft.) circumference.

Getting around by vélo

Here are the facts about this amazing place: about 600 people work at this facility which has an operating budget of 94million €. Roughly 6000 researchers from around the world come to this site yearly to carry out their experiments, and from those come some 1600 published research papers.  These researchers have to apply for beamline time and that is understandably costly running into the beaucoup of € per day.

Our tour took us throughout the building where we saw posters  informing us of the myriad of experiments performed using the beamline facility.  Since it was August when we visited and vacances was in full swing, the facility was not bustling with people. But we did get a good idea of the need for this technology in many aspects of scientific research.

Beamline Model

Beamline pic

High-Tech science is exhausting and makes one thirsty.  After our educational tour of the Synchrotron, Steve, Gemma, Will and I decided we needed a bit of refreshment.  We made our way to one of our favorite Irish pubs, The Druid’s,  in centre ville Grenoble.  There  the owner, David (out of  Ireland), quenched our thirst, and we spent some time contemplating the universe from a molecular standpoint or was that a beer molecule standpoint?

*** Click on any of the pictures or  the links in bold  for a closer look***

David at the Druid's pub

la gare routière: bus station

vacances: vacation



2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lori Millette
    Sep 27, 2010 @ 18:17:08

    Very cool.


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