Saskatchewan could soon be home to Canada’s first synchrotron, and if your first reaction is, “So what?” then, dear reader, you must read on.

Physicists are a lot like small boys: they like to see what makes things tick by smashing them up. In the case of small boys, those things may be clocks or model cars; in the case of physicists, they’re atoms and molecules. Small boys use hammers; physicists use particle accelerators, which speed up subatomic particles to enormous velocities and then smash them into targets.

The first particle accelerator, built in 1932, was an ordinary high-voltage transformer, but more specialized devices soon followed. Two of them, the betatron and cyclotron, accelerated particles inside a circular ring, and led directly to today’s particle accelerator of choice, the synchrotron.

A synchrotron resembles a doughnut; it’s main feature is a “race track” ringed with magnets. Particles which have already been given an initial boost with a linear accelerator (which accelerates particles in a straight line) are injected into this “race track,” and are speeded up faster and faster as they pass through the magnets’ fields, which are gradually increased until the particles are moving at the desired speed. Then the particles are siphoned out of the race track (properly known as a “storage ring”), and smashed into the target.

Just like cars on a race track squeal and smoke their tires, charged particles on a race track throw off electromagnetic radiation as they’re forced to deviate from a straight line, ranging from infrared, visible and ultraviolet light all the way up to X-rays.

At first this “synchrotron radiation” was just an unavoidable nuisance, but in the 1960s, researchers who needed powerful X-rays realized synchrotron radiation provided them, and began to piggy-back their experiments onto existing particle accelerators. Today, many synchrotrons are being built expressly for the purpose of creating synchrotron radiation.

If we want to see something clearly, we shine a bright light on it; the brighter the light, the more detail we can see. Synchrotrons provide extremely bright light of all types, and X-rays can be thought of as the brightest light of all.

Ordinary light has a wavelength of about 500 billionths of a metre; with it, you can see details as little as 200 billionths of a metre apart. That sounds pretty good, but molecules are much, much smaller than that. X-rays, with a wavelength a thousand times shorter than visible light, can reveal details even at the molecular level.

This has tremendous value in both basic and applied research. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, for example, are using synchrotron radiation to determined the structure of cells, bacteria and viruses, which will lead to the more intelligent design and development of drugs. Synchrotron radiation can help other companies build microscopic machines and more powerful computers; develop new materials; create new and safer pesticides; even enhance oil recovery. Before you can improve on anything, you have to know exactly how it’s made; synchrotron radiation provides that information in spades.

Canada is the only leading industrialized nation without its own synchrotron; by contrast, Japan is now building its 30th. Currently, more than 200 Canadian scientists are finding time on foreign synchrotrons, but it’s anticipated all foreign synchrotrons will be at full capacity by 2000.

Early last year the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council called for proposals to build and operate a Canadian synchrotron, called the Canadian Light Source, or CLS. Proposals from the University of Western Ontario and the University of Saskatchewan were presented to an international panel, and last week the Canadian Institute for Synchrotron Radiation approved the panel’s recommendation that the CLS be built in Saskatoon.

Of the $115-million required, the Universities of Saskatchewan and Alberta will contribute $22.7 million, including facilities; the province will provide $10.5 million, industry will chip in $4 million and the city of Saskatoon will ante up $1.2 million. The rest of the money will have to come from the federal government, something which as yet hasn’t been confirmed.

Assuming the feds do come through, the CLS will create 85 permanent jobs and draw several hundred scientists from all over the world every year–and help keep Canadian science and industry in the forefront of this exciting new field.

I can only see one downside. Just try saying “Saskatchewan synchrotron” very fast a dozen times in a row…and pity the province’s radio announcers.

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