'An unprecedented outage': Canadian Light Source synchrotron breakdown cancels research until November

A mechanical failure at Saskatoon's synchrotron means research projects will be shut down for months.

Power supply failure means no new projects until June 2019

Research shifts at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron have been cancelled until November while repairs are completed. (Canadian Light Source Inc, cc-by-sa-2.0)

A mechanical failure at Saskatoon's synchrotron means research projects will be shut down for months.

The Canadian Light Source Synchrotron at the University of Saskatchewan is a football field-sized facility that uses extremely bright light to peer inside matter. It is one of the world's most powerful microscopes, shedding X-ray "light" millions of times brighter than the sun. 

Problems began last month when the facility's electron source failed, knocking out the synchrotron's beamline.

"We're pumping electricity into the ring on a regular basis," said CEO Rob Lamb. "Sometimes it wasn't quite working and we needed to investigate what was happening."

We've told (researchers), 'don't come.'- CEO Rob Lamb

The synchrotron failure is a big deal for researchers. Around 200 projects from around the world have been put on hold until the equipment can be repaired.

"We've told them, 'don't come,'" said Lamb. "Until we've got it back up and the light going, they can't come. So, this disrupts their program quite significantly."

To compensate, the synchrotron isn't taking any new research proposals between January and June of next year, to make sure the current batch of researchers can be accommodated.

Star Wars-era

The problem equipment is a large power supply that was built almost 40 years ago. Luckily, the CLS has been able to source an exact replacement from a company in California.

The damaged power supply for the Canadian Light Source's electron gun. (Submitted by Canadian Light Source)

"It was probably developed around the same time Star Wars came out in cinemas," he said. 

220,000 volts is slightly more than the 110 volts you use at home.- CEO Rob Lamb

Due to the immense amount of power flowing through the machine, it has to be filled with oil to insulate it. That can complicate repairs.

"When you're generating that much voltage, 220,000 is slightly more than the 110 volts you use at home," he said. "This process takes a long time, because we need to drain the oil out for days...Then we need to let the oil settle, because if there were little bubbles in the oil, it would literally short circuit through the bubbles."

The power source was initially used in the Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory, a series of tunnels located under the synchrotron that was used for physics research between the 1960s and 1990s.

Despite all the problems at the facility, Lamb is impressed with the speed technical staff were able to diagnose the problem.

"I think the people here are amazing," he said. "This is the most complex scientific instrument in the entire country, and it's got hundreds of thousands of parts, so anything could happen, and this is one of the most obvious things that could happen."


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