Solution to plastic pollution on the horizon

Engineering a unique plastic-degrading enzyme

The inner workings of a recently discovered bacterium with a fascinating ability to use plastic as an energy source have been recently revealed in PNAS. The world’s unique Long-Wavelength Macromolecular Crystallography (MX) beamline here at Diamond Light Source was used to successfully solve the structure of the bacterial enzyme responsible for chopping up the plastic. This newly evolved enzyme could be the key to tackling the worldwide problem of plastic waste.

Plastic pollution is a global threat that desperately needs addressing. Plastics are rarely biodegradable and they can remain in the environment for centuries. One of the most abundant plastics that contributes hugely to this dire situation is poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET).

PET is used largely in textiles, where it is commonly referred to as polyester, but it is also used as packaging for liquids and foodstuffs. In fact, PET’s excellent water-repellent properties led to it being the plastic of choice for soft drink bottles. However, once plastic bottles are discarded in the environment the water resistance of PET means that they are highly resistant to natural biodegradation. PET bottles can linger for hundreds of years and plastic waste like this will accumulate over time unless a solution is found to degrade them.

A recent breakthrough came in the discovery of a unique bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, which was found feeding on waste from an industrial PET recycling facility. PET has only been widely used since the 1970s, so the bacterium had evolved at breakneck speed to be able to take advantage of the new food source.

The bacterium had the amazing ability to degrade PET and use it to provide carbon for energy. Central to this ability was the production of a PET-digesting enzyme, known as PETase.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

 

X-ray Focus

With a simple lens the Sun’s rays can be focused to a spot strong enough to burn paper.

Focusing visible light is one thing but can you focus X-rays in the same way?

This may seem impossible as X-rays are highly penetrating and they would travel straight through glass without any effect.

However by making several alterations it becomes possible: change the glass lens to one made of beryllium, reduce the diameter of the lens, increase the curvature and make it concave rather than convex then you can begin to see a slight focussing effect. Now stack 100 or more of these beryllium lenses together and you have constructed a device that focusses X-rays.

Throughout an experiment it is often necessary to change the strength of the lens assembly. This can easily be done by adjusting the number of lenses in the assembly. Moreover, it needs to be executed via remote control while ensuring that all the lenses are precisely aligned so that a focussed spot is obtained and finally the assembly must be within a vacuum chamber.

>Read more and watch the videos on the Diamond Light Source website

Figure: First image of the video showing X-ray beam (red) being focussed to different distances by the F-switch depending on the location of the sample under investigation.
Credit: Diamond Light Source

Bespoke beamline engineering: the Diamond Sample Manipulator

The Surface and Interfaces village brings together six beamlines with a range of techniques for investigating structural, magnetic and electronic properties of surfaces and interfaces. Many of those beamlines rely on a Sample Manipulator to hold samples securely in an X-ray beam less than a tenth of a millimetre across, whilst also enabling them to move and rotate around multiple axes and rotate around each axis. The differing requirements of each beamline mean that the basic design of the Sample Manipulator is customised for each one.

The I09 beamline, for example, is used for studying atomic structures and electronic properties across a wide variety of surfaces and material interfaces. The Sample Manipulator on I09 makes it possible to use X-ray techniques to study monolayer adsorption and surface reconstructions in a vacuum, crystalline and non-crystalline thin films, nano-particulates, large molecules and complex organic films and magnetism and magnetic thin-films.

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

Image: The Sample Manipulator in situ as seen through the vacuum window.
Credit: Diamond Light Source.

ALBA opens a liquid helium recovery plant

This installation allows recycling 80% of the liquid helium consumed in ALBA for operating the superconducting magnets and for experiments at ultra-low temperatures.

Despite being the second most abundant element in the universe, helium is very scarce on Earth and it is expected to be completely exhausted in a few decades. This inert gas, which is generated by fusing hydrogen atoms, is hidden in the subsoil of some natural gas reserves and its extraction is expensive and difficult to obtain. This is why different systems are being explored to recover helium and thus facilitate its application in the wide range of equipment in which it is used (beyond the popular balloons).

Liquid helium is basic for the operation of medical equipment such as magnetoencephalography (MEG) to cool down the superconducting magnets they contain to almost 270 ºC. It is also necessary for carrying out different scientific experiments; at the ALBA Synchrotron there are currently two superconducting magnets: one for producing synchrotron light in one of the beamlines and the other one for the sample area of another beamline, needing both a considerable amount of helium. Besides, four of the eight beamlines use it to keep cold the samples that must be analysed when they are irradiated with synchrotron light.

In order to guarantee the availability of this limited substance (it is foreseen that its cost will double in the near future), ALBA has built a plant to liquefy the helium gas and reuse it again once liquefied.

“With the new plant we can recycle 80% of the helium that we consume in our experiments and save more than € 10 per litre nowadays”, says Joan Casas, Head of the Engineering division of the ALBA Synchrotron.

>Read more on the ALBA website

 

Cool engineering for cold science

Has there ever been life on Mars?

We’re not sure, and current investigations focus around what happened to the water on Mars, which has long since disappeared from the planet’s surface. In 2007, the Opportunity rover detected the presence of meridianiite at its landing site in Meridiani Planum. Meridianiite (also known as MS11) is MgSO4∙11H2O, a hydrated sulfate mineral that is only stable at temperatures below 2°C. Satellite observations tell us that there are outcrops of hydrated sulfate minerals, several kilometres thick, in the walls of Valles Marineris, and meridianiite is thought to be widespread on Mars. Could hydrated minerals such as these be locking away all the water that once flowed on Mars?

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

 

Berkeley Lab delivers injector that will drive X-Ray laser upgrade

Unique device will create bunches of electrons to stimulate million-per-second X-ray pulses

 

Every powerful X-ray pulse produced for experiments at a next-generation laser project, now under construction, will start with a “spark” – a burst of electrons emitted when a pulse of ultraviolet light strikes a 1-millimeter-wide spot on a specially coated surface.

A team at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) designed and built a unique version of a device, called an injector gun, that can produce a steady stream of these electron bunches that will ultimately be used to produce brilliant X-ray laser pulses at a rapid-fire rate of up to 1 million per second.

The injector arrived Jan. 22 at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC) in Menlo Park, California, the site of the Linac Coherent Light Source II (LCLS-II), an X-ray free-electron laser project.

Getting up to speed

The injector will be one of the first operating pieces of the new X-ray laser. Initial testing of the injector will begin shortly after its installation.

The injector will feed electron bunches into a superconducting particle accelerator that must be supercooled to extremely low temperatures to conduct electricity with nearly zero loss. The accelerated electron bunches will then be used to produce X-ray laser pulses.

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source website

 Image: Joe Wallig, left, a mechanical engineering associate, and Brian Reynolds, a mechanical technician, work on the final assembly of the LCLS-II injector gun in a specially designed clean room at Berkeley Lab in August.
Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab

Inspiring the next generation by supporting the Year of Engineering

Diamond has pledged its support for the Government’s Year of Engineering 2018.

It is a national campaign to increase awareness and understanding of what engineers do among youngsters aged 7-16, their parents and teachers to tackle the engineering skills gap. Launched in response to an estimated shortfall of 20,000 engineering graduates a year and reports that the skills shortage is having a significant impact on productivity and growth, the Year of Engineering seeks to galvanise industry, policy makers, parents and teachers in a national push to inspire the next generation of engineers.

Diamond will be supporting the campaign by hosting a series of careers and open days throughout the year. These will be designed to inspire interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and to highlight the various roles and career paths available at the synchrotron. Every year, 3,000 members of the general public as well as 3,000 school students visit the facility and this year Diamond will be opening its doors to even more.

Diamond, which last year celebrated its 10th anniversary, will be hosting a careers day on Wednesday 21 February. On the day, delegates will be welcomed to the facility to learn about the engineers and engineering opportunities at Diamond. Delegates will be given the opportunity to tour Diamond’s unique facility and have a meet-and-greet session with experts covering mechanical, electrical and software engineering. Register your interest here.

 

>Read more on the Diamond Light Source website

 

Associate Director Matthew Miller promoted

He is promoted to the rank of fellow in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)

CHESS congratulates Professor Matthew Miller, the associate director of CHESS and the director of InSitµ@CHESS, for a recent promotion to the rank of fellow in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

The rank of fellow is bestowed on members who “have been responsible for significant engineering achievements” and have been active members for at least ten years. Professor Miller’s work developing new X-ray techniques, primarily at CHESS, and his development of the In-Sitµ center were mentioned prominently in his award citation, highlighting their importance to the mechanical engineering community. “Professor Matthew P. Miller is an international leader in the development and engineering application of high energy x-rays to probe the micro-structure of materials under live loads. Prof. Miller founded and directs InSitµ@CHESS (Integrated Simulation and x-ray Interrogation Tools and Training for µmechanics at CHESS).

Scientist combines medicine and engineering to repair a damaged heart

Regenerating heart muscle tissue using a 3D printer – once the stuff of Star Trek science fiction – now appears to be firmly in the realm of the possible.

The combination of the Canadian Light Source synchrotron’s unique biomedical imaging and therapy (BMIT) beamline and the vision of a multi-discipline researcher from the University of Saskatchewan in confirming fiction as fact was published in the September issue of Tissue Engineering, one of the leading journals in this emerging global research field of tissue regeneration.

U of S researcher Mohammad Izadifar says he is combining medicine and engineering to develop ways to repair a damaged heart. “The problem is the heart cannot repair itself once it is damaged due to a heart attack.” he explained.

Izadifar has conducted his research out of three places on campus – the College of Engineering, the CLS and the College of Medicine where he has been certified in doing open heart surgery on rats, having trained in all the ethical protocols related to these research animals.