Most Expensive MicroscopeFeb 9th, 2007
By MICHAEL HANLON
9th February 2007
Yes, this doughnut-shaped building in Oxfordshire IS a microscope, the biggest, most expensive and most powerful in the world, and will allow Britain to lead the world in the science of the very small. Sub-atomic particles travel around the huge ring (around the size of five football pitches) at 600 MILLION miles per hour which create powerful light beams which are then sent into adjacent laboratories where scientists can look at incredibly small particles in more detail than ever before
It costs £260m, is the size of five football pitches and is the most remarkable British scientific project in decades
By one reckoning this picture shows the most powerful torch in the world - a device that can create the brightest light in the known universe, ten billion times more brilliant than the sun.
It can produce a man-made beam of radiation so intense that it would be visible the other side of the cosmos, if it were to be pointed in the right direction.
Welcome to Diamond - the largest scientific instrument to be built in Britain for decades.
Constructed on the site of the old RAF Harwell airfield in Oxfordshire (from which the Pathfinder missions for D-Day took off), it has cost - so far - £260million.
And after four years in construction it has finally opened for business, as scientists started the first of many research projects that will harness its astonishing capabilities to shed new light - quite literally - on the world around us.
Over the next 30 years, it is hoped that Diamond will revolutionise everything from the way that computer microchips are built to the manufacture of new drugs.
So what exactly is this giant building - the size of five football pitches - that sits like a beached flying saucer, near the little town of Didcot?
Well, to properly understand how the machine works you really need a degree in physics - preferably a doctorate.
Its official name is a "synchrotron microscope" - the biggest, most expensive and most powerful of its kind on the planet.
But the very basic principles are simple enough. In essence, Diamond is a combination of a super-powerful torch and microscope.
It works by firing electrons, the sub-atomic particles that carry electrical charge, around a vast ring about 1,800ft in circumference.
Inside this ring, they are then accelerated by gigantic powerful magnets until they are travelling at around 600 million mph - nearly the speed of light.
As the electrons reach these astonishing velocities, they are vibrated by more magnets, causing them to throw out intense and highly-focused beams of radiation - whether in the form of visible light, infra-red beams or X-rays.
These beams, just a fraction of a millimetre across, are then channelled away from the main ring down into adjacent research rooms, just like water being sent down aqueducts, where they are then used by scientists to illuminate whatever sample they want to study - for example, a human cell or a tiny dust particle.
To put it very simply, this superbright light allows researchers to probe the most fundamental properties of the object being studied, right down to an atomic scale.
Diamond is certainly a versatile instrument. The first experiment, being conducted by scientists from Durham University, is using X-ray beams generated by the machine to find new ways of building silicon chips for machines like the iPod.
Sub-atomic particles, travelling around the huge ring at 600 million mph (almost the speed of light) create the world's most powerful microscope when they are vibrated using powerful magnets creating mightily powerful beams of light that are sent into adjacent laboratories where scientists can analyse crime cases, such as blood and human hair, and the Domesday Book in more detail
In future projects, the Natural History Museum has booked time to peer into the insides of meteorites, while police forces will be able to use Diamond as the most powerful forensic instrument in history.
A minute spatter of blood or a human hair from a crime scene can be analysed, atom by atom, to help scientists identify any evidence that conventional microscopes may have missed.
Because Diamond can peer with such precision, it will also be an invaluable tool for archaeologists.
Scientists at Cardiff University plan to examine the Domesday Book, the 11th-century Norman survey of England, to see what lies beneath the visible text.
And the Dead Sea Scrolls, mysterious Biblical-era texts, will also fall under Diamond's needleeyed scrutiny.
Jointly funded by the British taxpayer and by scientific charity the Wellcome Trust, it will also have numerous less arcane uses.
Similar, less powerful, machines abroad have already been used to develop Aids drugs, and it is hoped that Diamond will be able to help analyse and develop vaccines and retroviral drugs.
Vast and costly as it may be, this is a landmark that has ushered in a whole new chapter in British scientific exploration.
READERS SAY THAT, FINALLY, BRITAIN HAS BUILT SOMETHING THAT IT CAN TAKE PRIDE IN
Nothing short of a triumph. It's a great day for Britain and science.
- Steve Barker, Chippenham, Wiltshire
What a nice change! Something the British can be proud of. Well done you boffins.
- Chris., Harlow, U.K.
Now this is what we should be spending money on, not the Millennium Dome, or an out of control Olympics, but cutting edge science.
Remember when Britain had something to be proud about, when we led the world in Industry and Science?
I've no idea how NL let this through?! Surely its against policy?
- Dino Fancellu, Epsom
Maybe in 100 or so years' time, science will have advanced enough so that we will be able to build an equally powerful microscope around the size of the normal ones that we have now. But, at present capabilities, they need to be around the size of 5 football pitches. It's similar to how computers have shrunk.
Britain once led the world in scientific discoveries (she created the science of geology and discovered dinosaurs, amongst other things). Hopefully, this is just the start of a "Britannia redux" in the world of science.