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Shedding Light on Science

Spotlight On:

Josef Hormes
University of Saskatchewan
Canadian Light Source

The Canadian Light Source (CLS) is a national synchrotron research facility based at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. The multimillion-dollar synchrotron is not only one of the largest science projects in Canadian history, it is also one of the world’s most advanced generators of one of the brightest forms of light—synchrotron light. 

The CLS synchrotron uses radio waves and exceptionally strong magnets to accelerate electrons close to the speed of light within a ring-shaped vacuum chamber. The magnets bend the stream of electrons around the ring, causing them to emit intense beams that contain all forms of light including infrared, visible ultraviolet and X-rays.

The intense light created by the synchrotron lends itself to many uses, including experiments that investigate matter at the atomic level. An example of this is a technique used by the CLS called X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS). In XAS, precise wavelengths of X-rays are directed at the material being studied. Scientists can determine specific chemical and structural information about the material depending on the type and quantity of light it absorbs. Different elements absorb different wavelengths of X-ray.

The information obtained through XAS and related techniques has numerous applications, including developing ways to help reduce greenhouse gases, cleaning up industrial waste, developing improved paints and motor oils, designing better drugs, developing new materials for products such as solar panels and safer medical implants, and building more powerful computer chips.

“The research happening at the Canadian Light Source is very broad,” says Josef Hormes, Executive Director of Canadian Light Source. “CLS is a user facility that provides service and experimental equipment to academia, government and industry in various sectors, including environmental science, natural resources and energy, health and life sciences, and information and communications technology.”

One project the CLS is involved in deals with tailings management in the mining industry. The synchrotron’s abilities help identify metallic phases and unstructured compounds in effluents and fine mining waste. Most often, arsenic is found in mine tailings. Some forms of arsenic are toxic, because they are mobile and move easily in the environment, such as through water, and are easily absorbed by plants and animals. Other forms of arsenic are immobile and cannot move easily in an environment. One experiment the CLS did for an industrial customer demonstrated how the treatment process used by the mining company effectively bound up the arsenic in their tailings into an immobile chemical form.

“Synchrotron experiments are important to environmental research,” says Hormes. “It’s difficult to clean up the environment until we understand what’s polluting it. That is why we study the chemistry of the pollutant first and determine things like whether it is soluble in water and how reactive it is.”

Many of the experiments at the CLS require high performance computing to run programs and for data processing, as well as large storage capacity for their many data sets. WestGrid provides support personnel expertise and advanced computing infrastructure to the CLS and its users.

One user group led by John Tse at the Department of Physics and Engineering Physics at the University of Saskatchewan is using WestGrid’s Jasper computing cluster to develop new software for the prediction of X-ray absorption spectra and condensed matters.

Marie Fraser, an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary, is another synchrotron user. Fraser and her research group use the synchrotron to measure X-ray diffraction data. This data is used to evaluate where on a protein a potential drug molecule can bind to modify the function of the protein. One example is binding of an inhibitor molecule to the protein used by our bodies to produce fat from carbohydrates. Synchrotron light is used for investigating the three dimensional structure of these proteins. The vast amount of data generated by this process is stored and managed by WestGrid, making it easier for the scientists to access and analyze the information.

Another example of use in the medical field is the BioMedical Imaging and Therapy facility at the CLS, which uses the CLS as a tool for the imaging, study and treatment of disease. It includes research and therapeutic applications of improved imaging and analysis of soft-tissues and tumours, the development of new techniques to combat cancer and ways to deliver precise beams of high energy X-rays for the treatment of cancer.

“This experiment could also lead to more targeted drug delivery,” says Hormes. “For example, if there is a way to deliver drugs to the specific location of a tumour, the dose could potentially be increased, the procedure would be more effective and there would be less risk to the rest of the patient’s tissues and organs. The work being done at the Canadian Light Source is very broad and very interdisciplinary.”