London Blog

Diamond Light Source

One of the most exciting scientific locations in Britain is unfortunately just a little too far from Charing Cross to feature much on this blog, but tonight the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire, came to London.

In a special lecture tonight at the Royal Society of Chemistry, Professor Nick Terrill gave attendees an overview of some of of the projects using the Diamond Light Source facility and an insight into his own work, creating photovoltaics (solar panels) using plastic rather than the current, highly inefficient silicon.

The Diamond Light Source facility is the imposing silver circular building to one side of the imposing Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, a cluster of facilities housing around 150 organistions including the European Space Agency, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and the Medical Research Council. Professor Terrill began by explaining that Harwell is a world-class research hub with an array of benefits including a visiting researchers programme which brings overseas researchers to the facilities for several months to help develop the projects.

Professor Terrill then moved onto his own facility. Opened in 2007, the Diamond Light Source currently has 18 operation experimental stations (known as beamlines) with funding to increase that number to 32 by 2017. In simple terms, the Diamond is a linear particle accelerator: it uses magnets to move electrons to generate very intense beams of light, covering the Electromagnetic spectrum from Infrared to Ultraviolet.

To give an idea of intensity, Professor Terrill asked us to consider the brightness of a candle. Call that brightness 1. Relative to this, a lightbulb is about brightness 10 and the Sun 100,000. Using this scale, the light generated by the Diamond Light Source is 1,000,000,000,000,000: about ten billion times brighter than our Sun.

This light has a huge range of applications: projects which have used the facility include Formula 1 cars, protein structures and drug discovery work and the conservation of the Mary Rose, which is decaying. Work at the Diamond Light Source revealed that sulphur compounds on the inside of the rigging were responsible for the damage. The facility is open to external groups to use and with over 2000 research projects using it, it is a major contributor to academic and industrial research.

Professor Terrill’s own work centres around clean energy. He revealed that the Sun is generating more than 100,000 times as much energy as a candle, delivering about 160,000 TW of energy to earth. Compare this to the currently global energy requirements of about 18 TW an hour and it is clear that if we could develop a method of harnessing this energy, our concerns about finite energy resources would be over. The most efficient solar cell on Earth has more than 99% efficiency: the plant cell.

Silicon solar cells are, by their very nature, never going to achieve these levels, and Professor Terrill’s team is looking into a new generation of photovoltaics using plastics. Plastics can be very easily and cheaply generated, and most importantly, are stretchy, so can be used as a coating. Professor Terrill visualised a world in which the windows of office blocks and skyscrapers could be coated in photovoltaics, generating their own energy requirements and supplying the excess back to the National Grid.

While the first generation does work, efficiency is still the key. When they began this project, their efficiency was around 3.8%. The current maximum achieved is 5.54%. While the feasibly target of 8% is still some way off, the progress made in a short time gives Professor Terrill and the field hope.

For further details of Professor Terrill’s work, you can see his department homepage at the Diamond Light Source. For more on the Diamond Light Source facility, see its website, including a variety of educational resources.

This event was part of a regular series of lectures put on by the Royal Society of Chemistry. Next week’s lecture looks back at the work of Marie Curie, in this International Year of Science.

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