Diamond Light Source, the UK’s synchrotron, has achieved a “fantastic return on investment” since it went live in 2007. That’s according to a new study, which estimates its socio-economic impact at around £ 1.8 billion, with each taxpayer contributing £ 2.45 a year towards it.
Synchrotrons are used in imaging and non-destructive testing of materials and structures as well as in drug research and development. Founded in 2002, Diamond is an independent, not-for-profit, joint venture between UKRI’s Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Wellcome Trust, which own 86% and 14% of the facility, respectively. Diamond has received £ 1.2 billion in investments over 14 years and has hosted 14,000 users.
‘[£1.8 billion] is almost certainly an underestimate, “comments Diamond CEO Andrew Harrison. “For example, it is very difficult to monetize the value to the industry from higher profits because of confidentiality issues.” The benefits will show up for years to come, he adds.
The study by research consultancy Technopolis and Diamond found that the work done on the synchrotron resulted in 9,600 research articles, with a cumulative impact estimated at £ 677 million to date on breakthrough science, software and applications valued at £ 51.3 million. The ‘softer’ impacts include £ 8.8 million worth of training courses ranging from training researchers to use a specific beamline to supporting software for data collection and analysis with beneficiaries ranging from trainees to Postdocs.
“It’s the facilities in the UK that really make the difference and make us a world leader,” commented John McGeehan, professor of structural biology at the University of Portsmouth. His team used Diamond to study the bacterial enzyme PETase, which digests plastic. “Diamond I23” [long-wave macromolecular crystallography] beamline is unique in the world. It enabled us to solve the 3D structure of the PET-degrading enzyme, which was first found in plastic landfills in Japan in 2016. Three years ago it was the highest resolution image of the enzyme that was measured and it still is today. With this information we can understand how the enzyme works and how it works faster and better. ‘
As a result, the team was able to visualize the active center of the enzyme and its plastic consumption. The researchers found that the active center was slightly wider than cutinase, a similar enzyme that bacteria use to break down natural plant polyesters. “The technology that emerged from this research means that plastic waste can be broken down and put back together in bottles (infinite recycling) or made into higher quality products like resins for wind turbine blades,” says McGeehan. Patents pending.
National institutions like Diamond promote industry expertise and are key to better understanding technology and experimental results, says Dave Rugg, former Rolls Royce and regular Diamond user. “All in all, they create long-term and sustainable innovation and profitability,” he adds.
Rolls-Royce’s activities focused on understanding the residual stress profile of materials used in components, which then helped the company demonstrate product capability in tenders for new contracts and provide a better understanding of the lifespan of the products used to reduce repair bills says Rugg.
Diamond’s beam lines enable non-destructive measurements of internal stresses and strains in components with a mass of up to two tons and a length of over one meter. Most synchrotron beam lines are focused on microscopic samples. Rolls-Royce used energy dispersive X-ray diffraction to assess the performance of surface treatments on fan blades in preventing cracks. “Fan blades are heavily used components and we needed them for a longer service life. We were able to see complex geometries with very good spatial depth resolution in these large components, ”explains Rugg. The load profiles we created gave us confidence in our production performance and were able to massively increase the service life of the components. ‘