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ALBA synchrotron: traveling at the speed of light to push science’s horizons

One of Catalonia's top research centers is the biggest of its kind in the Mediterranean


24 July 2021 11:11 AM


Guifré Jordan | Cerdanyola del Vallès

Traveling at the speed of light. Can you imagine? That's what they do at the ALBA synchrotron – the only particle accelerator of its kind in Catalonia and across Spain, and the biggest in the Mediterranean. 

Electrons are accelerated by creating tiny synchrotron light beams, which allow researchers to visualize and analyze matter better at an atomic and a molecular level. Or, as one of the venue's longest-standing experts, Salvador Ferrer, puts it:  "This is a center that generates X-rays. X-ray beams are used for the common things of X-rays. One of the things is for radiographies [X-rays], for example. So here we do radiographies on cells."

Medicine, radiology, biology, electronics, chemistry and materials science are just some of the fields that benefit from this center. 

Finding a treatment for Alzheimer's is one of the current challenges that is being investigated at ALBA, as well as cancer. Indeed, a study on the origin of calcium was published recently, and the results could be used to find bone cancer therapies.

Synchrotron's contribution to Covid-19

The Synchrotron can be key for studying the main challenges humankind faces in the 21st century, such as health issues including, at the moment Covid-19, and climate change, sustainability as well as attaining a circular economy.

One of ALBA's labs is called Mistral and is devoted to cryo nano-tomography in the water window for biological applications. And one of these applications currently in operation is developing the "possibility of looking at cells infected by Covid-19 in high resolution, among the best in the world," director Caterina Biscari told Catalan News. 

  • "[We have the] possibility of looking at cells infected by Covid-19 in high resolution, among the best in the world"

    Caterina Biscari · ALBA synchrotron director

Synchrotron researchers are developing the project in collaboration with CNB-CSIC and, according to Biscari, other such centers are the reason a vaccine was developed as fast as it was. 

ALBA has allowed scientists to carry out all kinds of experiments. "One of the applications we have, although not the most common, is to bring things here, like old paintings, and analyze the pigments in the paintings for historical reasons," Ferrer told Catalan News. 

Looking inside of a modernist stained glass window to find out why they are losing their luster is just one of the experiments in the field of cultural heritage – and analyzing ham particles to determine whether it is Iberian or not is another project related to the food industry. 

How the synchrotron works

A disc at 1,000 degrees Celsius and 90,000 Volts of electricity are enough to isolate electrons – then it's time to accelerate them at a speed close to light within an 85-meter diameter ring.

Eight labs, or beamlines, come off at tangents, and this is where researchers get samples of beam running in the loop, and use it to look into the inside of matter. Each of the beamlines is specialized in one technique. There are three areas of research: biology, magnetism and electronic structure.

Eduardo Solano, who works as a fulltime researcher at the NCD Sweet beamline explains that many kinds of experiments can be done on matter: "We can heat it up, stretch it, apply it to an electrical field and whatever we want."

Facilities at ALBA synchrotron (by Sergio Ruíz)

His job involves helping and working with researchers from other centers who ask to carry out experiments with the beamline, devoted to materials such as plastics, skin samples and solar cells. 

Public institutions can use the facility for free if their proposal is accepted, while private firms, including pharmaceuticals, pay around 500 euro per hour. Scientists, 40% of whom come from abroad, spend just a few days and go after observations that can be key for their research.

Future: research on batteries for electric vehicles

ALBA will be updated within the next ten years, becoming a fourth generation synchrotron, which will be called ALBA II and will be operative in 2031. 

At the moment, the facility has eight beamlines, but it will have 13 in the future. Five of them are planned or under construction, including one which in collaboration with the European Space Agency. The aim is to contribute to the future X-ray telescope Athena, which among other things, will look into black holes. 

ALBA also hopes to play a key role in research on electric cars with a future lab on batteries.

"We need to develop higher performance batteries that are cheaper and not only made of lithium, but with other materials such as calcium and sodium," says Biscari. 

Catalonia aims to host Volkswagen's first battery factory in Spain – and research at the synchrotron would be able to complement the business. Indeed, Biscari reveals that they have been in touch with Catalan and Spanish authorities to present a facility within ALBA II called ASTIP that would house an advanced materials lab, including batteries.

Have a listen at our podcast on the ALBA synchrotron

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  • ALBA Synchrotron, aerial view (ALBA)

  • ALBA Synchrotron, aerial view (ALBA)