Aerial photograph of Diamond. The striking silver building houses all three particle accelerators, and takes up the area of five football pitches. (Courtesy of Diamond Light Source Ltd.)
Aerial photograph of Diamond. The striking silver building houses all three particle accelerators, and takes up the area of five football pitches. (Courtesy of Diamond Light Source Ltd.)

The UK opened the world's first facility dedicated to the production of synchrotron radiation (SR) 26 years ago. This was sited at the Daresbury Laboratory and was constructed from the remains of a redundant accelerator for high-energy physics. In those pioneering days, few scientists knew of the existence of SR, and even fewer could guess how the technique would evolve during half a working lifetime in science. You will find mingled at SR facilities people working in chemistry, physics, medicine, engineering, environmental and geological science, and archaeology and heritage studies. Protein structures that previously took years of effort to be determined, now take less than an hour.

Possession, or shared ownership, of an SR facility has become a sign that a nation has reached technological maturity. Numerous facilities are under construction worldwide. Although the Daresbury source was pioneering, it ceased to be competitive more than a decade ago and this aging source, though continuing to be productive, is a poor image of UK science.

Five years ago, the Wellcome Trust joined with the UK government to fund a new SR facility. Even as I write, Diamond, the UK's new national synchrotron source near Oxford is opening its doors to the first users. The photograph indicates the size of this venture – the largest scientific civil engineering project in the UK for 30 years. Diamond has a strong biological emphasis; of the first seven beamlines, three will be devoted to studies of biomolecular structure. There are a further 15 beamlines in design and under construction.

Is Diamond just another national SR facility? Not according to the scientists and engineers based there – they have set their sights on being the best ‘3 GeV synchrotron in the world’ and aim to contend with the 6 GeV ‘super facilities’, which are the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France, SPring8 in Japan, and the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory, in any scientific arena where they can land a punch. Nothing has been spared on the specification of the storage ring and the phase one beamlines have been built with generous funding and staffing.

Synchrotrons are costly to build, expensive to run, and must win funding against competition from other large national projects. Governments look for a return on their investment, and, in the UK, it is increasingly difficult in chemistry and materials to justify work that has no practical outcome apart from a better understanding. I do not defend this utilitarianism, but note its presence. At the very least, we, the users of public facilities, should be conscious that we spend other people's money and that taxpayers should know that their money is being spent to the best effect. It is my belief that Diamond is excellent value for money, and that it will put tools in the hands of UK scientists that are the envy of others worldwide. But I also believe we can offer better value. Facilities already operate on a 24/7 basis; the real challenge is making every available second of beamtime useful.

Access to SR facilities for academics is free; all that is needed is a two-page proposal that convinces an international review panel. Beamtime is then scheduled, within which there is time for setting up the experiment. This is necessary but it is also time lost to the experimenter. Furthermore, since beamtime is scheduled twice a year, any mistakes will incur a six-month delay. Thus, it would seem wise to reduce setup time and assess data as it is collected to ensure that the best possible data is taken away at the end of the experiment.

My experience of synchrotrons over a 20 year period tells me that the automation of beamlines and software applications for quality assessment have not kept pace with the enormous advances in synchrotron technology. There is a great wealth of experience in SR facilities that could be built into an ‘intelligent’ system that could steer users from the planning through to the execution of their experiment. Sample changer facilities are commonplace in home-laboratories but rarely found at synchrotrons. Real-time, automated analysis, could ensure that data collection stops when the data is good enough, and poor inhomogeneous samples could be skipped. It should be possible for a spectrometer to configure itself automatically for optimum data collection.

This would not remove the need for experimenters to be present at the beamline, but could double the efficiency of some instruments. The taxpayer would rest assured; the experimenter might get some sleep. Can Diamond make the dream reality?

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70057-3