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Museum scientist uses new 'super microscope'

07 February 2007

Natural History Museum mineral expert, Paul Schofield, is one of the first scientists to use the new 'super microscope' that opened in Oxfordshire yesterday.

The biggest UK-funded science facility to be built for 30 years, the Diamond Light Source synchrotron allows scientists to see cells, atoms and other microscopic structures in minute details using powerful light sources.

'The Diamond synchrotron offers us the opportunity to study non-destructively all sorts of specimens from the various collections here at the Museum,' says Paul.

'The ability to study the atomic structure of the natural materials we house will allow scientists to gain a fundamental understanding of all sorts of global and environmental processes.'

Looking closely at a meteorite

Paul is studying the molecular structure of minerals in a meteorite and is using the synchrotron to see details so small no one will have seen them before.

The meteorite, called Santa Catharina, was discovered in 1875 on the island of São Francisco off the coast of Brazil. Scientists believe the lump of rock is part of the remnants of a planetoid (small planet-like body) that blew apart around 140 million years ago. Understanding the structure and substance of the meteorite will help us investigate things such as how our solar system and its planets have evolved.

'The Santa Catharina meteorite has a chemistry that is quite unique from that of other iron meteorites,' explains Paul.

'We will be using the Diamond synchrotron to characterise the atomic structure of the minerals that make up this meteorite. In so doing we hope to piece together its long and complex history.'

Exceptional brightness

The Diamond Light Source synchrotron is the size of 5 football pitches. The state-of-the-art facility is shaped like a doughnut and sends particles speeding around in its ring-like vacuum chamber, close to the speed of light. This is fast enough to make the particles lose energy in the form of ultra-violet and X-ray beams. These beams are exceptionally bright and they are channelled off down seven beamlines where scientists can carry out their work.

These highly focused light beams can penetrate deep into the structure of matter, imaging where the atoms are and what they are doing. This will help scientists investigate, in much more detail than ever before, the world around us, helping answer questions such as how life on Earth began and how can we live in a greener and more sustainable environment.