What's One Billion Times Brighter Than the Sun?

Illustration for article titled What's One Billion Times Brighter Than the Sun?

In the rolling Berkeley hills, under a dome that once housed its Nobel-Winning predecessor, lies the Advanced Light Source: an X-Ray generating system one billion times brighter than the sun.


The Advanced Light Source is the world's first third-generation synchrotron light source in its energy range. Located in the Berkeley Hills of Northern California, the ALS is actually situated in the same building that originally housed E. O. Lawrence's (as in Lawrence Livermore Labs) 184-inch cyclotron, a beefed up version of his original accelerator that earned him a Nobel Physics Prize in 1939. A synchrotron is a specialized particle accelerator that carefully matches the magnetic and electrical fields inside the device with the passing electron beam. That doesn't sound too impressive until you realize that the beam is comprised of 7.5 billion electrons, and it's the width of a human hair. It rockets around the ALS at 299,792,447 m/s (99.999996% the speed of light) and with an energy level approaching 1.5 billion electron volts.

The process starts in the center of the array, where electrons are jump-started from a standstill to near light speed in a linear accelerator. They're then transferred to a booster synchrotron for one second—in which time they'll make 1.5 million revolutions and attain their target speed and energy levels, before moving on to the storage ring. This ring has fewer atoms per unit volume than the vacuum of space, which minimizes potential collisions with the electron beam and allows it to circle uninterrupted for hours on end. While it cycles in the storage ring, hundreds of electromagnets help maintain the focus of the beam and narrow it—creating a light source 100 times brighter than conventional X-Rays and a billion times brighter than the Sun. From there, the beam is shot down one of a series of 39 beamlines that terminate with an experiment station where researchers observe how the synchrotron light affects their sample materials.

Since its dedication in 1993, the ALS has been used by over 2000 researchers a year studying everything from the electronic structure of matter to atomic and molecular physics to 3D biological imaging. Most notably, the ALS was employed when a team from UC Santa Cruz using the ALS's protein-crystallography facilities took the first high-resolution look at ribosomes—minute organelles that cells use for protein synthesis—and when Dow Chemical scientists detailed "super-absorbent polymers" capable of ushering in a new era of hyper-absorbent disposable diapers. The ALS, bringing you the future—one poopy bottom at a time.

The Advanced Light Source - Berkeley Labs ALS Tools - Future of the ALS - Berkeley Labs News Center - Snychrotron Wiki - ALS Wiki]



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