Soleil (Sun in French) is a synchrotron facility near Paris, France where scientists from all over Europe perform X-ray based experiments.
The facility consists of a particle accelerator and a numerous amount of workstations at each of the X-ray beam line exit points. These X-rays are formed when the accelerated particles are bent by large magnets. The excess energy is released in the form of X-rays.
The main synchrotron building, pictured below, houses a powerful particle accelerator containing electrons travelling with an energy of 2.75 GeV around a 354 m circumference. It takes the electrons 1.2 μs to travel around this ring at almost the speed of light; 847,000 times per second. The building follows the same ring shape giving it it's unique look easily recognizable from the sky.
Through it's many beam lines, it covers fundamental research needs in physics, chemistry, material sciences, life sciences (notably in the crystallography of biological macromolecules), earth sciences, and atmospheric sciences. It offers the use of a wide range of spectroscopic methods from infrared to X-rays, and structural methods such as X-ray diffraction and diffusion.
As part of my job, I was able to visit the facility and perform some experiments with my fellow colleagues. We used the Proxima 2a beam line, one optimized for macromolecular structure analysis (protein crystallography). Good data was collected during the 12 hour shift.
Since working with these highly energetic x-ray beams is dangerous, safety for it's users is the number one priority. For this reason, the sample chamber or hutch is completely sealed while the experiments are in progress (ie. Open shutter, the X-ray beam can enter the room). To prevent accidental exposure to X-rays, the user must follow a multi step procedure before the door is unlocked. Typically you'd only need to access the hutch twice; once during the loading of the samples into the robot and once to retrieve the samples after the experiments have finished.
A control board allows the user to perform the necessary checks and manipulations to unlock the hutch door. An information panel displays the current status of the beam line. These information panels can be found throughout the entire facility.
Below is a 360° view of the sample preparation room and hutch door (massive red door) and control panel.
LEARNING THE PROCEDURES
After loading the samples, this robot can hold up to nine pucks (each containing 16 crystals), the entire experiment is controlled through a multi monitor computer setup. The top screen shows the robot assembly and crystal mount on the beam line. The bottom middle screen controls the robot, detector and goniometer. The bottom left and right screens are information displays where one shows the processing results and the other one the frames from the detector. Daunting at first, the software actually is very intuitive to use.
Beside the main synchrotron building, the campus features an auditorium, restaurant and guest house. We ended up staying two nights at the guest house, where rooms were basic but very comfortable. Ideal to relax after a long shift at the beam line.
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