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Building Bridges With Light: Does Africa Need A Synchrotron?

Building Bridges With Light: Does Africa Need A Synchrotron?

Africa is the only habitable continent on Earth without such a synchrotron and a physics professor at Stanford University in the U.S. wants to change that.

A synchrotron is a light source — a machine that accelerates electrons to high energy, allowing them to emit powerful X-rays that can be used to study the structure and properties of all kinds of things, according to a report in PhysicsWorld. Applications range from condensed-matter physics to biology.

Africa needs a synchrotron because it could help African researchers tackle some of the continent’s big issues such as Ebola and other life-threatening diseases, according to Herman Winick. Winick is with the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. That’s the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science laboratory operated by Stanford University.

There are 23 countries around the world with almost 50 synchrotron light sources, PhysicsWorld reports.

The entire world of synchrotron science depends on one physical phenomenon, according to European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, or ESRF, in Grenoble, France. “When a moving electron changes direction, it emits energy. When the electron is moving fast enough, the emitted energy is at X-ray wavelength.”

The African light source is still in the early stages of planning, but Winick said he expects it will have energy of around 3 GeV — that’s three giga electron-volts. That’s similar to other facilities such as the Laboratório Nacional de Luz Síncrotron in Brazil, the first synchrotron to be built in the southern hemisphere and the only light source of its kind that’s turned on in Latin America.


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Africa should follow the synchrotron model being built in Amman, Jordan, said Winick, who is scheduled to speak this week at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Texas.

Winick wants researchers throughout Africa to get behind the project.

“They need to get involved and take ownership of it,” he told PhysicsWorld. Development won’t exactly be happening at the speed of light. It will be at least 15 years before the facility is open for business, Winick said.

Built at a cost of $110 million, the Amman synchrotron will be available to users in 2016 with the goal of connecting researchers from 10 Middle East countries and beyond, including Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and Palestine.

Researchers are already working on plans for the African light source, establishing an interim steering committee. Winick is serving on it. The committee will help to set up a more permanent international advisory committee to oversee formation of a scientific case for the synchrotron. “The plan is to bring together those working on synchrotron radiation in Africa,” Winick said.

With around 40 synchrotron users in South Africa, the country could be a potential host. It has considered hosting an African light source facility for a last decade, PhysicsWorld reports. South Africa is an associate member of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France, and pays about 0.3 percent of the facility’s budget.

The European synchrotron facility could play a supporting role in the African light source, Winick said.

The next stage for the fledgling African synchrotron project? The interim committee is scheduled to meet in November at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France.