Science and Technology Facilities Council
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Celebrating another year of exciting science

A snapshot of some of the incredible science of 2013.

As a nation we tend to do a lot of travelling at this time of year, braving potentially icy roads and traffic jams to meet up with loved ones all over the country. A popular alternative is to let the train take the strain, and researchers using the ENGIN-X instrument at ISIS earlier this year were using neutron diffraction to help ensure that train wheels spend less time out of service, and more time on the tracks.

Transport is just one area in which we use a lot of energy, and we know that burning fossil fuels causes ozone to form at ground level. Whilst ozone provides us with UV protection when it’s in the upper atmosphere, here on the ground it’s a pollutant that can cause health problems. A team from Birbeck, University of London has been using neutrons from ISIS and ILL to investigate how ozone attacks the lipid molecules in lung surfactant – which could lead to new breakthroughs in the treatment of respiratory problems for premature babies, asthmatics and cystic fibrosis sufferers.

Whenever we touch anything, we leave behind a residue of sweat and natural oils – our fingerprints. We know that detectives have been using fingerprints to identify criminals for a long time, and forensic scientists like to look for ‘latent’ prints, the ones not immediately visible that may have survived any attempts to clean up the crime scene. It can be difficult to get good images of latent prints, and currently only 10% are of high enough evidence to be used in court. Criminals need to beware, though, as researchers from the University of Lancaster have been using ISIS and ILL to work on a new technique that relies on the electrically insulating nature of fingerprints to produce an image.

After seeing what’s been going on at ISIS this year we’re pleased as punch that an international review has confirmed our sneaking suspicion that the ISIS facility is both innovative and world leading. And it’s not all about neutrons – ISIS is celebrating 25 years of muons!

ISIS isn’t our only facility that has had an exciting year. CLF spin-out Cobalt Light Systems has been busy supplying scanners to European airports that can tell security staff what’s inside opaque containers of liquid. It relies on Spatially-Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS), a technique originally developed at CLF. SORS has medical applications, too. For example, researchers are hoping it will lead to faster breast cancer screening.

CLF have recently been awarded a grant for a new LIFEtime instrument to be built, that will allow researchers to examine biological processes on a variety of timescales. There’s also new money for OCTOPUS, our super-resolution laser microscope that has eight ‘arms’ and allows scientists to view their samples in a variety of wavelengths of light.

Elsewhere in the CLF, the development of laser tweezers has made it quicker and easier to handle small crystals, under 10 microns in size. The laser tweezers have already been put to good use in a cross-campus collaboration with the Diamond Light Source, where they have been used to position protein microcrystals for X-ray examination.

Diamond has also been shedding light on gribbles, tiny wood-boring insects that could be the key to turning waste paper and wood into a biofuel. To turn woody biomass into a liquid fuel, we have to break down sugar polymers into simple sugars and then ferment them. Gribbles use a special enzyme to break down the wood, and now that we know that we might be able to replicate the process on an industrial scale.

Slightly larger animals were the subject of another area of research at Diamond. Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) affects all cloven-hoofed animals. One of the most contagious animal diseases, it is estimated that FMD costs farmers more than £3 billion every year. Scientists used Diamond to develop a new, entirely synthetic, vaccine for FMD. It doesn’t rely on a live virus, and is much safer to produce, meaning it could be far easier to use for farmers in the developing world.

CERN have been busy upgrading the Large Hadron Collider this year, but the discovery there of the Higgs boson made it possible for Professor Peter Higgs and Professor François Englert to win the Nobel Prize for Physics this October, for their theoretical work predicting its existence. If you’d like to experience the excitement for yourself, you can visit the Collider exhibition at the Science Museum in London, which is running until April 2014.

2013 has also seen the UK invest £88 million in the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which will be the world’s largest ever optical telescope. Work began on the project in Chile in December, but isn’t expected to be completed until 2023. Meanwhile, the adaptive optics that will be needed to compensate for atmospheric distortions in the images the E-ELT captures are being put to a very different use by researchers at the University of Durham. Their project, Beating Hearts at High Resolution is looking at the hearts of zebra fish, with the aim of improving our understanding of the human heart, and developing better treatments for heart conditions.

The completion of ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile in March marked the completion of two decades of work from institutions all over the world, including the UK. RAL Space hosted and operated Europe’s Front End Integration Centre, one of three places where components crucial for ALMA’s receivers were integrated and tested. UK ATC provided essential software; their Observing Toolmakes it possible for scientists to turn their observations into useable information, but also helps the observatory to operate as efficiently as possible, to maximise the scientific output. UK ATC have also been involved in a project to use astronomy technology to detect Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of sight loss in the developed world. And Commander Chris Hadfield dropped in to the Royal Observatory Edinburgh last week to sign copies of his book and inspire the next generation of astronauts and astronomers.

Our public engagement team have been doing plenty of inspiring in their own right, as our ‘Explore Your Universe’ programme has reached 30,000 people. Find out how you can get involved, and while you’re there check out whether our travelling exhibition, Seeing the Universe in all its Light, is heading your way – it explains why astronomers need to use different wavelengths of light to see the Universe in all its glory.

Two cameras designed, built and tested by RAL Space, are due to be fitted to the ISS early in 2014. They’ll be able to generate a video stream of images of Earth, which UrtheCaste will build into a catalogue of video and images for public access – a resource both for education and environmental awareness. The final Ariane space launch of 2013 sent the Gaia mission on its way; its exciting mission to survey the galaxy is only just beginning, as our year of science draws to a close.

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