La Trobe physicist heads synchrotron (Issue 5, 2011)


Dr Andrew Peele from the Faculty of Science, Technology and Engineering

Synchrotrons spin electrons, they can also spin your mind.

Synchrotrons are at the cutting edge of physics. In fact the edge is now so sharp you need a synchrotron just to see it. Are physicists really at the point where they have to build something just to see where they are? I thought that now they can bend light they can see just about any edge. Come to think of, what’s taking them so long finding the particular one belonging to the universe?

Ok, obviously I don’t know the first thing about physics, but one person who knows enough to fill probably numerous blackboards is Dr Andrew Peele from the Faculty of Science, Technology and Engineering, who has just been made Head of Science at the Australian Synchrotron.

Operating since July 2007, the Australian Synchrotron is the largest stand-alone piece of scientific infrastructure in the southern hemisphere and is one of only about 40 in the world.

Dr Peele’s appointment was jointly announced by the Acting Director of the Australian Synchrotron, Dr George Borg, and La Trobe University Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Tim Brown.

With research interests that give you a headache just by saying the words (try it, say ‘x-ray vortices, diffractive optical elements, and phase imaging and tomography’ and tell me your head doesn’t hurt afterwards) Dr Peele is immensely qualified for the role. He also knows that the world-class research facility is pivotal in keeping many of Australia’s top scientists in Australia.

‘It has supported the research needs of more than 2000 domestic and international scientists since its opening in 2007 and continues to run its existing beamlines (research stations) at better than 99 per cent reliability,’ said Dr Peele.

Now I know since the first sentence of this article, you’ve been thinking ‘what is a synchrotron?’ So even in the knowledge that I would need numerous panadol and a lie down afterwards I challenged myself to come up with some sort of answer.

Apparently, a synchrotron uses magnetic and electric fields to accelerate particles (typically electrons) around a circular track so they radiate light. And no, physicists don’t do this just for fun. Well maybe a little bit, they do make huge amounts of x-rays after all.

By doing this, physicists and other scientists can examine the structure and properties of materials at unprecedented levels of detail. This is essential for the development of technologies used in many industries, including biotechnology and nanotechnology, as well as more traditional industries such as pharmaceuticals, mining and telecommunications.

What’s more amazing is that the technology to make these things has been around since the 1950s, and even then was capable of generating billions of electron volts! Who knew?