Chocolate, Crystallography and Wine

I’ve just seen this advert, and it looked awfully familiar. It reminded me of  this logo:

Synchrotron logo

Synchrotron logo

…and the model of the Synchrotron building:

Synchrotron model

Synchrotron model

2014 was the Year of Crystallography, and we only found out about it on 11 December.  So there was no way to celebrate or buy stuff, you know, but at least we were able to attend an informative event at the Australian Synchrotron down the road from us, at the Monash Uni Clayton campus.

Till then, my understanding of crystals or crystallography was split between

  • a vague memory of first year Geology (filler subject) where diamonds were just like graphite except that the atoms were better organised, rather like a museum vs your granny’s attic;
  • growing salt and sugar crystals when my kids were small; and
  • seeing a film about how Watson and Crick unethically took Rosalind Franklin’s X-rays of DNA, to help them to an understanding of the structure of DNA that won them the Nobel prize for Physiology/Medicine in 1962.

But, hey, it was free event, so we went to have a look, and found out that crystallography is much more than that!  Crystallography is involved in studying processes as diverse as proteins in the human body, pharmaceuticals, food technology, agricultural technology, mining, and information sent back from Mars (more on that later) and many others.

How can tiny crystals and even atoms be seen, and how are the pictures useful? In the lecture hall the basics were explained in very simple and concrete ways.   As we age, we find that we need bright light and  lenses to see more clearly.  The Synchrotron makes an extreme light source  to be directed at the compound being studied, and the scatter patterns will explain how the molecules are put together.

The experiments can also tell quickly how to alter those compounds for more effective manufacturing and development. eg targeting cancer treatment to tumours only, not the surrounding healthy cells; making bio-plastics from waste bloodmeal, or a type of ecologically-friendly concrete from fly-ash left over in coal-fired power stations and slag from iron smelting.  Um, different experiments and different beamlines.   But can you picture the headlines when they invent a compound that handles all these?

The light source is up to a million times brighter than the sun.  That would fry our eggs nicely, I should think.  It wasn’t quite explained  (not from the national grid, I reckon) how the energy source is pumped into the linac (circled part).  At various points, microwaves add to the power so that the electrons reach 99 point something % of the speed of light.  Large magnets keep the electrons curving round, as they would travel in straight lines otherwise. Light is tapped off as needed into one or more of the nine beamlines for the experiments.

Experiments are run 24/7 by academics from all over the world, according to a merit-based application process.  Industry can source the Synchrotron more easily, for a fee.

We heard two of the researchers talk about their projects.   The first researcher studies how the  protein plasminogen digests blood clots inside the body.  Obviously, plasminogen cannot be free to digest things all the time, and it is combined with other protein parts until the moment of need, when yet another protein split the bonds and allow plasminogen loose to do its work.  The graphics looked like beginner knitting, and it’s amazing they made sense to someone.

The second researcher gave us a fascinating insight into the exploration on Mars.  In 2006, a new group of minerals called jarosites were discovered. Jarosites form in a wet environment but break down quickly if water persists.  When the Mars Exploration Rover “Opportunity”discovered jarosites, there was great interest.  Evidently there was water on Mars at some stage, and NASA’s main focus now is to look for signs of life in the sedimentary clays of the Martian lake where the rover “Curiosity” and its crystallography instrument is now parked.

The practical earth-based implications for jarosites are eg in zinc smelting, where forming jarosites as early as possible will trap the iron impurities, leaving a clean zinc product.  Conversely, the formation of jarosites in bio-leaching of mine dumps will prevent the microbes from working effectively, and crystallography helps show which of the processes to halt, and what temperatures, timings, pressures and pH to use.

Outside the lecture hall, PhDs who looked as if they had left school last month stood at tables to discuss the latest developments in which they are involved – metals with shape memory (ie they can revert to their original annealed shape at the set temperature), improving battery size and memory, and showing lattice structure of minerals.

The highlight of the event was a guided tour through the main Synchrotron building. One of the beamlines shoots across to the medical imaging building on the other side of the parking area (underground, luckily, otherwise we could have had an unexpected x-ray when we arrived) , and that wasn’t part of the tour.

Approaching the main Synchrotron building

Approaching the main Synchrotron building

Inside the Synchrotron

Inside the Synchrotron

synch 7 synch 8

The main building is about the size of the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, and the concrete for its floor was cast in a single pouring, since it has to be utterly stable.  That must have been some orchestration!

The literature we received mentioned that wine scientists have also used the Synchrotron to study tannins in wine.  The size and shape of tannins affects the taste of wine, and alters according to the affect of other compounds present or missing in wine.  I suspect that this will help them standardise wine in future – but will that be as much fun as anticipating a new experience each time one pops the cork?

They could have started with the wine on our floor last night, which uncannily had yet another synchrotronic pattern on it:



We didn’t stop to eat at the cafeteria, the Kitchen Synch, so I don’t know if they serve wine and chocolate.  Probably reminds them too much of lab chemicals….


About jaqinoz

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