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We visit the Alba Synchrotron, Barcelona's particle accelerator

This is a unique third-generation scientific facility and the most important of its kind in the Mediterranean region.

The Alba Synchrotron is located just half an hour's drive from Barcelona, in Cerdanyola del Vallès. Non-scientists will probably not know of its existence, but the state-of-the-art synchrotron is a highly important research facility which attracts scientists from all over Europe to carry out their research.

So, what is a synchrotron? It is an accelerator of subatomic particles, electrons in this case, that uses electromagnetic fields to accelerate charged particles so they reach high speeds (close to the speed of light) and collide with other particles. This enables scientists to understand the new particles that are generated by the collisions. There are two basic types of particle accelerator: linear and circular. The synchrotron is circular. This means that particles are curved in opposite directions so that the products of their collision can be studied.

An infrastructure with numerous applications

The synchrotron in Barcelona is called the ALBA and is one of several around the world. Inaugurated in 2010, it is managed by the Consortium for the Construction, Equipment and Operation of the Synchrotron Light Laboratory (CELLS). ALBA is a complex of cutting-edge electron accelerators that provide stable, high-quality light beams to scientists who come from all over the world to conduct their experiments. A valuable source of knowledge for both science and industry, its mission is to investigate, apply, and maintain the methodologies and techniques needed to carry out research and development projects based on the use of synchrotron light.

And what exactly is researched at the ALBA synchrotron? The synchrotron has eight operating lines, focusing on biosciences, condensed matter, nanoscience, and magnetic and electronic properties. The facility has numerous applications and enables scientists to discover new techniques in a wide range of fields. These include new techniques for detecting tumors in radiotherapy; improving catalytic processes to reduce or eliminate pollution from combustion engines; developing new materials to build smaller, more powerful memories; studying the composition of minerals on Earth; and analyzing ancient works of art to restore them or verify their authenticity.

At the Synchrotron, scientific research is carried out in many different applied areas: climate and environment, medicine, physics, chemistry and even art

What makes ALBA unique is that, despite being a synchrotron and therefore belonging to the family of circular accelerators, it is made up of a linear accelerator, a propulsion ring (where the electrons are accelerated) and a storage ring (where the electrons are stored and synchrotron radiation is emitted that is sent to the different light beams).

The government has granted 4 million euros to the National Centre for Biotechnology to study Covid-19 in the ALBA synchrotron. This means it may become a key tool for curbing the pandemic, as its technology could be employed to achieve a vaccine, unravel the molecular structure of the virus, or understand how it infects healthy tissues.

Looking to the future

In collaboration with bodies such as the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) and the Institute of Molecular Biology of Barcelona (IBMB-CSIC), and with the participation of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST), the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the ALBA Synchrotron will be home to a monochromatic, aberration-corrected transmission electron microscope. This cutting-edge electron microscopy equipment will contribute to Barcelona's role as a top-level European excellence 'hub'.

This impressive scientific facility has been welcoming scientists from Spanish and international institutions since 2012, attracting, fostering and promoting the city's international and glocal talent, and motivating both young and experienced scientists to use new technologies and light beams in their ambitious and pioneering projects.

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