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Synchrotron beamline to help track environmental contaminants


Saskatoon, SK – A new hard X-ray microfocus beamline at the $174-million Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron at the University of Saskatchewan promises to be a powerful tool in protecting the environment.

Commissioning of the hard X-ray microanalysis for X-ray absorption spectroscopy beamline (HXMA) will start in March, with the first user experiments expected a few months later.

While HXMA is designed as a general purpose hard X-ray spectroscopy beamline that can be used in a variety of applications from analysis of advanced electronic materials to alternative fuels, it has been informally dubbed the “environmental beamline” for its utility in tracking elements such as arsenic, mercury and selenium in virtually any sample, regardless of its physical state.

“We’ve worked out the techniques of how to track arsenic in mine tailings using other synchrotrons,” says Jeff Cutler, CLS associate director of research for industrial science. “We’re really looking forward to seeing what our own facility can do.”

The first tests on the source of HXMA have shown excellent results. An advanced feature of the beamline is a custom-built superconducting wiggler source, a kind of amplifier for X-rays that makes the beam so intense that it rivals performance of the world’s most powerful synchrotrons in the hard X-ray spectroscopy field.

Ron Cavell, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Alberta and president of the Canadian Institute of Synchrotron Radiation (CISR), explains that HXMA is designed to deliver an intense X-ray beam to a tiny spot – five microns or smaller, or about 20 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Dr Cavell, who also serves on the CLS board of directors and helps steer development of several beamlines, says HXMA will be a powerful tool to help researchers sort out how environmental toxins are mixed in with other materials.

“Everything is a mix and you really need to know what things are and where they are so you can plan efficient remediation,” he says. “If you can figure out a way to identify and treat only the toxic material, you can reduce the cost of remediation. If you can also get some idea how the toxins were formed, you can avoid creating the waste material in the future.”

The CLS team is drawing on international expertise and a growing national research community to build one of the most advanced facilities in the world.

“The world synchrotron community is a tight-knit one, and we’ve benefited a great deal from this cooperation and expertise, particularly from our colleagues in the United States,” says De-Tong Jiang, CLS staff scientist and the HXMA beamline team leader. “The manufacturer participation is from all over the world. In the last few months, we have had teams from Russia, England and Japan working on the HXMA line, installing some cutting-edge technology.”

HXMA has been eagerly anticipated by scientists across Canada, including the growing synchrotron research community at the University of Saskatchewan. Only two U of S scientists used synchrotron light in their research when the CLS got the green light in March 1999. This number has grown to more than 70, with attendant opportunities for hundreds of graduate students and post doctoral fellows from across the country to use synchrotron analytical tools.

The HXMA beamline is one of seven currently being commissioned. Another six are in various stages of planning, including a biomedical imaging and therapy beamline (BMIT) and the Canadian Synchrotron nanostructures facility (CSNF), a “machine shop” to manufacture tiny components for an array of products from cell phones to medical sensors.