Synchrotron illuminates Saskatchewan

The synchrotron – one of the world’s most powerful microscopes – unveiled last Friday by Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert and federal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale has everyone agog with excitement – and with very good reason.

Housed in a football-sized facility at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, the $174 million Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron represents one of the biggest and most revolutionary science and technology (S&T) ventures in Canadian history.

Capable of radiating X-ray light millions of times brighter than the sun, the CLS synchrotron generates enough light to enable probing into the nature of matter at an atomic level.

The CLS project is path breaking in other ways as well. It is the first synchrotron in North America specially designed for the study of human health, as well as subjects such as environmental technology, food safety and biomedical engineering, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Research.

Synchrotron research avenues and applications are virtually limitless – extending all the way from designing better microchips to investigating plant enzymes, from observing human cells react to drugs to curing the common cold.

And the technology that enables it all is state-of-the-art.

It involves the use of powerful magnets that accelerate very tiny particles to nearly the speed of light. Negatively charged electrons accelerated along a stainless steel tube reach incredibly high speeds emit a continuous spectrum of light, enabling scientists to select the specific wavelength required for their experiments – visible light, ultraviolet or x-rays.

Researchers from 18 universities across Canada are likely to use the Saskatoon facility for studies in a wide range of fields including physics, geology, biochemistry, climate change, engineering and medicine.

New X-ray imaging techniques developed using the synchrotron could potential lead to healthcare breakthroughs such as very early diagnosis of breast cancer to looking inside arthritic joints.

Applications extend to industry and agriculture as well.

For instance, by improving our understanding of chemical compounds – from the behaviour of poisons in the environment, to where nutrients are located in a seed – synchrotron-based techniques could lead to a cleaner environment or crops with higher nutritional value.

Project costs included the $173.5 million dollars spent on the facility, as well as investments in scholarships and research chairs.