This week I visited the Australian Synchrotron in south-eastern Melbourne. I’ve visited a few times now, but I always find it exciting and feel like I am stepping into some futuristic opening scene from the X-Files.
A synchrotron is a very large machine, which needs to be housed in its own purpose-built building. It is roughly the size of a football field and at some facilities scientists are given bicycles to get around inside the building! (No bikes in Melbourne, though.) The synchrotron accelerates electrons to close to the speed of light, and then this extremely bright light is released into various beamlines for research or medical use. Synchrotron light is incredibly bright (a million times brighter than the sun!) and can be generated across the electromagnetic spectrum from infrared to X-rays.
We use the synchrotron to image large fossils, or to get really high resolution images of very small ones. Once imaged, the synchrotron projections can be reconstructed into a stack of images (each one a slice through the object) that I then process using specialised software to view inside the specimen and analyse it in three-dimensions (3D). New technology like that in use at the synchrotron is challenging the boundaries of scientific enquiry, and opening up new and exciting possibilities for research.