The shape of snow: New insights could help climate models

Scientists from the Institut des Géosciences de l’Environnement of Grenoble, the Centre d’Etudes de la Neige and the Groupe de Météorologie Expérimentale et Instrumentale have developed a new approach for measuring the interaction between snow and sunlight. This methodology is important to improve the accuracy of climate models. They did X-ray tomography experiments at ESRF ID19 beamline. The results are published in Nature Communications.

Once deposited on the ground, snow is a material composed of air and ice crystals, whose shape and arrangement vary greatly at the micrometre scale. This is known as the microstructure of snow. This “skeleton” of ice and air governs the propagation of light within the snowpack through optical phenomena such as refraction and internal reflections in the ice phase.

However, despite its extreme complexity and irregularity, natural snow is still represented in a simplistic manner in almost all optical models, including those implemented in climate models. These models typically depict snow as a collection of ice particles with perfect geometric shapes, mainly spheres. Among the many implications for the energy balance of snow, this simplification leads to significant uncertainties in climate modelling, with potential impacts of up to 1.2°C on global air temperature.

In this new study, the authors from the Institut des Géosciences de l’Environnement of Grenoble (IGE / CNRS – INRAE – IRD – UGA – Grenoble INP-UGA), the Centre d’Etudes de la Neige (CEN / CNRM / Météo-France – CNRS) and the Groupe de Météorologie Expérimentale et Instrumentale (GMEI / CNRM / Météo-France – CNRS) have accurately simulated the light propagation in a collection of 3D images of snow microstructure obtained by X-ray tomography, using a ray-tracing model. Very different snow types were investigated, from fresh snow (PP) to refrozen melt-freeze forms (MF). Some images were obtained at the 3SR-Lab. Several snow microstructures required higher resolution and were acquired at ESRF beamline ID19.

Read more on the ESRF website

Image: Snow microstructure: This is what fresh snow looks like at the micrometre scale

Machine learning enhances X-ray imaging of nanotextures

Using a combination of high-powered X-rays, phase-retrieval algorithms and machine learning, Cornell researchers revealed the intricate nanotextures in thin-film materials, offering scientists a new, streamlined approach to analyzing potential candidates for quantum computing and microelectronics, among other applications.

Scientists are especially interested in nanotextures that are distributed non-uniformly throughout a thin film because they can give the material novel properties. The most effective way to study the nanotextures is to visualize them directly, a challenge that typically requires complex electron microscopy and does not preserve the sample.

The new imaging technique detailed July 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences overcomes these challenges by using phase retrieval and machine learning to invert conventionally-collected X-ray diffraction data – such as that produced at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, where data for the study was collected – into real-space visualization of the material at the nanoscale.

The use of X-ray diffraction makes the technique more accessible to scientists and allows for imaging a larger portion of the sample, said Andrej Singer, assistant professor of materials science and engineering and David Croll Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in Cornell Engineering, who led the research with doctoral student Ziming Shao.

“Imaging a large area is important because it represents the true state of the material,” Singer said. “The nanotexture measured by a local probe could depend on the choice of the probed spot.”

Read more on the CHESS website

Two powerful universities join forces in a common cause.

The SOLARIS National Synchrotron Radiation Centre will soon be the site of a joint project by Jagiellonian University and Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. In the hall of only Poland’s synchrotron will house a beamline for research into viruses, drug and vaccine carriers and nanomaterials.

The Ministry of Education and Science, in the framework of the investment grant ‘Construction of a measurement line for small-angle X-ray scattering research’, has decided to award funding for the construction of a new beamline at the SOLARIS National Synchrotron Radiation Centre, operating within the structures of the Jagiellonian University. This will be the first line in Poland and Central and Eastern Europe dedicated to the study of biological molecules, polymers and their composites, viruses, drug carriers and nanomaterials. Its creation will be possible thanks to the cooperation of scientists from two leading Polish academic communities, from the Jagiellonian University and Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan.

The rectors of the two universities met on 13 July at the NSRC to discuss collaborative spaces, and plans to develop new experimental techniques and learn about the specifics of shared research centres such as SOLARIS.

– The persistence of scientists from our universities in achieving the success of the joint project is an excellent example of exemplary relations between two powerful academic centres in Poland. I am delighted that, after so many months of perturbations to obtain ministerial approval, we have been able to obtain approval for this project. I wish that in three years’ time, we will all have the opportunity to meet here and together open a new line of research that will enable us to make breakthrough discoveries. – said Prof. Jacek Popiel, Jagiellonian University Rector.

– Science always has two dimensions: the present – the local – but also the global. Projects such as the joint research line project take us to this higher dimension of science.  I am a firm believer that global science does not succeed without collaboration. Our two universities have shown that such cooperation has yielded excellent results for many years. – said Professor Bogumiła Kaniewska, PhD, Rector of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan.

Read more on SOLARIS website

Newly identified protein could help fight cancer

Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have identified a new protein that helps an oral bacterium thrive in other locations around the body. The discovery could eventually lead to the development of new drugs that specifically target the protein.

“This bacterium is common in the mouths of humans and generally doesn’t cause disease in that location. However, it can travel through the bloodstream to other areas of the body, which leads to some pretty big health concerns,” says Dr. Kirsten Wolthers, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Microbiology at UBC’s Okanagan Campus.

Most notably, this bacteria is prevalent in the tumors of colorectal cancer patients. The presence of the bacteria can contribute to tumor growth, spread of cancer to other sites in the body, and resistance to chemotherapy.

With the help of the CMCF beamline at the Canadian Light Source (CLS), located at the University of Saskatchewan, Wolthers and her colleagues determined that the new protein they identified enables the bacteria to take essential nutrients, such as iron, from our blood cells.

Read more on the CLS website

Image: Alexis Gauvin, inspecting a protein sample for particulate matter, using the glove box. Gauvin is a biochemistry student and a member of Dr. Kirsten Wolthers’s research group in the Department of Chemistry, University of British Columbia (Okanagan Campus).

Differences in bumblebee vision help different species share resources

Synchrotron studies of bumblebee eyes show differences between species that help to explain coexistence

A central theme of ecology is understanding how species coexist in an environment. A traditional explanation is that species partition the available resources by space or time, a process called niche partitioning. Different bees, for example, specialise on foraging on specific flower species, and some are physically adapted to do so. However, this specialisation does not provide a complete explanation, as coexisting bee species often overlap in their choice of flowers. Suggestions of complementary or alternative partitioning mechanisms include the selection of microhabitats based on temperature, light and wind conditions. Without a more thorough explanation of the mechanisms that underpin local coexistence, we may struggle to understand the factors behind the ongoing loss of bee diversity. In work recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society Bresearchers from Lund University, Stockholm University and Queen’s University Belfast investigated whether differences in vision allow bumblebee species to forage in different light conditions. Their results show that bumblebees with a higher sensitivity to light forage in dimmer conditions. This study demonstrates the importance of including sensory traits in studies of pollinator habitats.

Peaceful coexistence in the forest

In a natural ecosystem, multiple species coexist. One of the ways in which they can reduce competition is to use the environment differently, a process called niche partitioning. Different species may focus on different food sources, for example, or nest in distinct parts of trees. In the case of bees, niche partitioning would suggest that multiple bee species living in the same area would forage from different flowers. However, bumblebee species have overlapping diets, so how do they avoid intense competition for food resources?

One possible explanation is that the bees select spatial or temporal microhabitats depending on temperature, light and wind conditions based on their physical traits. According to the microhabitat hypothesis, bees could avoid competition by exploiting flower resources at different times of day, for example. There are even some species of bees known to forage at night.

This type of visual niche partitioning is seen in several insect groups, including tropical butterflies, damselflies and fruit flies, and previous research has demonstrated that it is associated with visual traits. As bumblebees mainly use vision to find flowers and control their flights, it is possible that visual niche partitioning could help to explain the coexistence of different species. In this study, a team of researchers tested the hypothesis that bumblebee species demonstrate light-related niche separation and that this separation was related to differences in their visual traits (for example, bees that foraged in dim light had eyes with higher light sensitivity than those that forage in brighter light).

Uncovering what different bee species can see

A Swedish forest in springtime gave them the ideal environment to test their hypothesis, as it offered bumblebees a single food source – bilberry flowers – in a location with varying light levels. The bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is a primary food source for multiple bumblebee species. The structure of the forest creates sharp differences in light conditions, which also vary over the course of the day.

The researchers analysed the community composition of bumblebees in the forest, recording light intensity and temperature for each bee observation. They then linked the observations to key physical traits for each species, including body size (which influences thermoregulation and eye size).

The key to exploring whether bumblebee vision affects their foraging patterns lies in the eye parameter, which reflects the trade-off between resolution and light sensitivity associated with compound eyes. Eyes adapted for high resolution have a low eye parameter, while a high value suggests improved light sensitivity and better vision in low light conditions. Previous research has shown a connection between the eye parameter for bumblebee species and their habitat preferences.

At the Diamond-Manchester Imaging Beamline I13-2, the researchers used X-ray micro-CT to scan sample bumblebee eyes, performing volumetric and computational analyses. By scanning at I13-2, the researchers were able to not only rapidly acquire data from many specimens but the images they obtained enabled them to reconstruct 3D volumes of the bee eyes in the high-resolution detail required for their analyses.

As lead author Dr Océane Bartholomée explains:

These visual traits are hard to measure, and using micro-CT at Diamond allowed us to carry out a much deeper study than we would have been able to do if we could only examine more basic traits, such as body size.

Read more on Diamond website

Image: Role of light and temperature on bumblebee community composition

Unique properties of a new anode material for Li-ion cells.

Researchers from AGH, Shanghai Institute of Space Power-Sources and the University of Silesia have conducted research on a new anode material. The material features a simple synthesis method, excellent cyclic stability and good electrochemical performance. Experimental studies have been carried out using the technique of X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS on PIRX line), and the pioneering results have been published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Lithium-ion batteries are a ubiquitous technology for today’s society, being crucial especially for portable electronics and the electrification of transport. However, from a point of view of further growth of the Li-ion batteries market and emerging applications, new cells with an extended lifespan, improved safety, as well as higher energy and/or power density are indispensable. To achieve this goal, one of the most significant objectives is to replace the conventional graphite anode, working already at its theoretical limits, with other, better compounds. Although much higher capacities can be obtained by employing anode materials that store lithium based on different Li-storage mechanisms, as compared to graphite, new challenging issues have emerged regarding their application. The main one is poor stability during cycling (i.e. charging and discharging), resulting in the unacceptable capacity fade. Recently it has been proposed to combine two different Li-storage mechanisms within a single compound, benefiting from their advantages and confining the disadvantages. The so-called conversion-alloying materials (CAMs) have been proposed and developed. Despite the overall improved electrochemical properties of CAMs, their still insufficient cycling stability remains a significant problem. So far, the only possibility of improving cyclability was to use complex and expensive synthesis methods and additives, which are hard to scale and expensive, and because of that, the vast majority of them will never be used for commercial production.

When studying the literature, authors of the publication found that a novel group of materials, the so-called high-entropy oxides (HEOs), has brought particular attention in the field of materials science and is currently extensively studied all over the world. HEOs are materials containing numerous elements (typically five or more) in a ratio close to equimolar, resulting in the high configurational entropy of the such system (hence the name). Because of the presence of many constituents and complex interactions between them, these compounds may exhibit exceptional properties, which cannot be simply predicted by analyzing the components individually. For example, one such effect is the excellent cycling stability observed for HEOs when they are applied as anode materials in Li-ion batteries. The reasons for this behavior, however, have not been fully understood so far.

Maciej Moździerz, the first author of the publication says: “In our work, we decided to resolve the problem of the capacity fade of CAMs by developing a novel concept of application of the high-entropy approach to CAMs. We successfully created a new anode material for Li-ion batteries, Sn0.80Co0.44Mg0.44Mn0.44Ni0.44Zn0.44O4, characterized by the excellent cycling stability, as well as good electrochemical performance. Very importantly, it can be obtained using a simple synthesis method, without expensive additives, and therefore, is easily transferable to the industrial scale. Then, we wanted to take a step further and explain in details why exactly this material works very well, and how in particular the high-entropy approach ensures great stability. For this purpose, we had to use several experimental techniques allowing investigating battery materials at the atomic scale, including X-ray absorption spectroscopy experiments, which were possible thanks to the use of the research infrastructure of the National Synchrotron Radiation Centre SOLARIS.”

Read more on SOLARIS website

Scientists develop strategy to engineer artificial allosteric sites in protein complexes

According to a recently published research paper by a team of scientists, a groundbreaking approach has been developed to create artificial allosteric sites (where by binding an effector molecule, activity at the distal active site is regulated) in protein complexes. This breakthrough research holds significant promise for a wide range of applications in industrial, biological, medical, and agricultural fields.

The team’s work is published in Nature Chemistry on 06 July 2023 at 16:00 (London time).

Protein complexes, such as hemoglobin and molecular motors, exert concerted functions through cooperative work between the subunits (constituent proteins in the protein complex). This orchestration is enabled by the allosteric mechanism. The allosteric effect, regulation of function at an active site in a subunit by the binding of an effector molecule to an allosteric site in another subunit, was originally proposed in the 1960s and since then it has remained one of the most important topics in the biochemistry field. The research team developed a strategy for designing artificial allosteric sites into protein complexes to regulate a concerted function of a protein complex. “The creation of artificial allosteric sites into protein complexes has the potential to reveal fundamental principles for allostery and serve as tools for synthetic biology,” said Nobuyasu Koga, a professor at the Osaka University.

The research team hypothesized that allosteric sites in protein complexes can be created by restoring lost functions of the pseudo-active sites which are predicted to have been lost during evolution. Various protein complexes include subunits that have pseudo-active sites. It has been
reported that pseudo-active sites have an allosteric connection with active sites in other subunits. For example, a pseudo-active site in a subunit, which has lost ATPase activity but still exhibits ATP-binding ability, activates another subunit’s active site upon binding to ATP. (At the cellular
level, ATP is the source of energy. ATPase describes the enzyme’s ability to decompose ATP.) Such studies support the idea that distinct allosteric sites can be created into protein complexes by engineering pseudo-active sites.

Read more on the Photon Factory website

Image: Fig. 1 Design of allosteric sites into a rotary molecular motor

Ready, set, upgrade: Advanced Photon Source’s overhaul is underway

The facility is undergoing a comprehensive upgrade. Afterwards, the new APS will be able to generate X-ray beams 500 times brighter

Over the past three years, thousands of machine parts have been delivered to a low-slung, deceptively plain building in Lemont, Illinois. Once a warehouse, Building 981 is now a workshop — an extremely sophisticated one. Inside, a multitalented team assembles the building blocks of a complicated yet elegant machine, one that will sit at the heart of the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facility at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.

This new machine is part of a comprehensive upgrade to the facility, one that will set it at the forefront of global X-ray science for decades to come.

More than 5,500 scientists in a typical year use the APS for its intensely bright X-ray beams. Since it began operating in the mid-1990s, the APS has enabled advances in the fields of medicine, energy, climate, physics and more. The drug Paxlovid, devised to treat COVID-19, emerged from work at the APS. So did two Nobel Prizes in chemistry. These and many other breakthroughs have resulted from the APS’s ability to illuminate the otherwise invisible.

“The APS Upgrade opens up possibilities that could not be envisioned till now.” — Suresh Narayanan, Argonne Physicist

Now comes a moment more than a decade in the making. The APS’s powerful engines shut down on April 24, to make way for this new machine, called a storage ring, which circulates electrons in order to deliver X-ray beams up to 500 times brighter than the current one. That required first dismantling the existing storage ring, which spanned about two-thirds of a mile around. This phase of the project is now complete. The next phase will see the new components from Building 981 — preassembled into 200 modules weighing up to 50,000 pounds each — moved in this summer, when installation will begin in earnest.

Read more on the Argonne website

Image: Workers remove the final girder of the original APS. The new ring will be made up of 200 modules, each with precisely aligned electromagnets and complex vacuum and electrical systems

Credit: Argonne National Laboratory J.J Starr

What drives ions through polymer membranes

Ion exchange membranes are needed in (photo)electrolysers, fuel cells and batteries to separate ions and enable the desired processes. Polymeric membranes such as synthetically produced compounds like NAFION are particularly efficient, but they cannot be degraded. A ban on the use of these “eternal chemicals” is currently under discussion in the European Union, and the development of suitable alternatives will be a major challenge. So, it is crucial to understand why NAFION and other established polymeric membranes work so well.

A team led by Dr. Marco Favaro of the HZB Institute for Solar Fuels has now investigated this using a special type of electrolysis cell. Here, the membrane sits on the outer wall and is in contact with both the liquid electrolyte and a gaseous external environment. It can act either as an anode or a cathode, depending on the polarity of the applied potential. This hybrid liquid-gas electrolyzer is considered particularly favorable for the electrochemical conversion of CO2 thanks to the higher CO2 concentrations that can be achieved in the gas phase, thereby overcoming the poor solubility of CO2 in aqueous solutions.

For the study, Favaro and his team used commercially available ion-exchange membranes in contact with a model electrolyte like sodium chloride (NaCl) in water. Water vapor was fed to the gas phase, with the partial pressure of water close to its vapor pressure at room temperature. To analyze the migration of sodium and chloride ions through the membrane, they used in situ ambient pressure hard X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (AP-HAXPES) at the SpAnTeX end-station at the KMC-1 beamline of BESSY II.

“Indeed, we were expecting that the ion dynamics was determined, under applied potentials, by the electric fields generated between the anode and cathode of the electrolyzer, and that electromigration was therefore the main driver,” says Marco Favaro.

However, analysis of the data showed otherwise: electromigration hardly plays a role; the ions simply diffuse across the membrane. The data could be perfectly simulated numerically with a diffusion model. “Our conclusion is that ions move through the polymer membranes in these types of electrolyzers due to hopping mediated by the ionized functional groups present in the membranes. In addition, since water diffuses as well through the polymer, the ions are “dragged” as well” explains Favaro.

These results are exciting for a number of reasons: These types of electrolyzers are a way to convert CO2 into valuable chemicals that can otherwise only be obtained from fossil fuels. Understanding how these devices work helps on the way to decarbonize the economy. On the other hand, the ion-exchange membranes that are a key component of these cells are themselves problematic: the European Union may soon ban the use of persistent chemicals. Understanding the relevant drivers of such transport processes will help to develop new membrane materials that are both efficient, durable, and environmentally friendly. Favaro now intends to take this project forward at HIPOLE, the new Helmholtz Institute in Jena, which will focus on polymer materials for new energy technologies.

Read more in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A

Image: Membrane

Credit: HZB

The key to why plants flower early in a warming world

Scientists have unveiled a new mechanism that plants use to sense temperature. This finding could lead to solutions to counteract some of the deleterious changes in plant growth, flowering and seed production due to climate change. The results are published today in PNAS.

The rise of temperatures worldwide due to climate change is having detrimental consequences for plants. They tend to flower earlier than before and rush through the reproductive process, which translates into less fruits and less seeds and reduced biomass.

Scientists are now working on the plants’ circadian clock, which determines their growth, metabolism and when they flower. The key thermosensor of the circadian clock is EARLY FLOWERING 3 (ELF3), a protein that plays a vital role in plant development. It integrates various environmental cues, such as light and temperature, with internal developmental signals, to regulate the expression of flowering genes and determine when plants grow and bloom.

A team from the ESRF, CEA and CNRS have determined the molecular mechanism of how ELF3 works in vitro and in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. As temperature rises, ELF3 undergoes a process called phase separation. This means that two liquid phases co-exist, in a similar way to oil and water. “We believe that when it goes through phase separation, it sequesters different protein partners like transcription factors, which translates into faster growth and early flowering as a function of elevated temperature”, explains Chloe Zubieta, CNRS Research Director from the Laboratoire de Physiologie Cellulaire et Vegetale at the CEA Grenoble (CNRS/Univ. Grenoble Alpes/CEA/INRAE UMR 5168) and co-corresponding author of the publication. “We are trying to understand the biophysics of the prion-like domain inside ELF3, which we think is the responsible for this phase separation.

ELF3 is a flexible protein, with no well-defined structure, so it cannot be studied using X-ray crystallography, as it needs to be in solution. Instead, the team used mainly Small Angle X-ray Scattering. All existing models showed that the structure would be highly disordered. Then the surprise came up: “I’ve seen many prion-like domains involved in phase separation, but this is the first time I saw something fundamentally different”, explains Mark Tully, ESRF scientist on BM29 and co-corresponding author of the publication.

Read more on the ESRF website

Tomography helps to provide insights into Aboriginal cultural belongings

ANSTO is committed to using its infrastructure and expertise to work with Aboriginal communities and organisations to confirm the great antiquity of Aboriginal cultural heritage and assist with their preservation.

A number of sophisticated non-invasive nuclear and accelerator techniques were used to provide information about the origin and age of an Australian Aboriginal knife held in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum.

The knife with a striking highly polished resin handle was selected to be part of a 26-object exhibition, The Invisible Revealed held at the Powerhouse during 2021-2022.

Prior to the exhibition, the Powerhouse Museum wanted to determine the materials used in the construction of the knife and handle.

Powerhouse Museum First Nations Collections Coordinator, Tammi Gissell, explained that because little was known about the origin or use of the blade, it had to be handled with caution and following cultural protocols.

For this reason, the object was sent in a closed box to senior instrument scientist Dr Joseph Bevitt.

“Essentially, we had to answer these questions without looking at the object. The object was sent  to the Australian Synchrotron, where we used a 3D imaging technique, known as tomography, on the Imaging and Medical beamline (IMBL) to analyse it. The powerful X-ray can penetrate the box and the object to reveal important information about the materials,” explained Dr Bevitt.

The imaging was done by IMBL instrument scientist Dr Anton Maksimento and the data processed by Dr Bevitt.

“We could determine that the object was not made of metal but a very dense bone. Only two animals had bone that dense – the Australian cassowary and the water buffalo. As the museum told us it was found in northern Queensland, the source would have been the cassowary,” he added.

The next investigation used radiocarbon dating of the red Abrus seeds found on the handle.

Radiocarbon dates of the seeds from the Centre for Accelerator Science at ANSTO indicated  that they were most likely to have been harvested between 1877 and 1930— which may indicate the knife’s time of production.

Read more on the ANSTO website

Image: Image from the Imaging and Medical beamline at the Australian Synchrotron

Credit: ANSTO

Building a better carbon capture system

Carbon capture has been hailed as a ground-breaking technology for cleaning the air. And it is, but there are some drawbacks – it’s expensive, and most technology requires the generation and application of heat, which creates emissions.

There had to be a better way, thought Dr. Haotian Wang, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Rice University at Houston, Texas.

Wang and his team found it in a process of electrolysis they studied at Rice and collaborated on with the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan. They have devised a modular solid electrolyte reactor that, in time, will be usable everywhere, in industry but also for “household use, small business use, space station, submarine, any enclosed environment,” he said. Their study was published in the journal Nature.

“Our new approach is integrated capture and regeneration, which means that you can continuously concentrate the carbon dioxide from dilute sources into almost 100 percent purity.”

The reactor is divided into three chambers. Electrolysis, a process by which electric current is passed through a substance to effect a chemical change, occurs on two sides — one performing oxygen reduction and the other oxygen evolution. The oxygen reduction reaction creates an alkaline environment, which captures carbon and then releases it in the central chamber.

The carbon can either be stored underground or converted to valuable products such as alcohols, “which is also an important direction we are working on,” Wang said.

Crucially, no chemical inputs other than water are required and no side products are generated.

Wang has estimated that the cost of capturing carbon will be $83 per ton, but with improvements, that could drop to $58 or even $33 per ton, a big saving from today’s costs, which range from $125 to $600 USD.

“It’s not only the cost but also the energy source that we can use, which is electricity,” he said. “Ideally, we want to transform this into an electrifying process because in the future we can get a lot (of clean electricity) from solar farms, wind farms and nuclear power plants.”

The CLS played an important role in this work.

Read more on the CLS website

Transforming chicken manure into nutrient-rich fertilizer for crops

An international collaboration between researchers from Brazil and the United States has identified a process for turning poultry waste into a soil additive for agriculture.

“Several countries have large poultry production, especially United States and Brazil, where agriculture is also concentrated,” says Aline Leite, a Post Doctoral researcher from the Federal University of Lavras in Brazil. “So, reusing a global residue generated in large amounts is an interesting way of promoting a circular economy.”

The researchers harvested poultry manure from an experimental site in the United States, which they heated to turn into biochar, a carbon-rich substance that is used as a soil additive to replenish critical nutrients like phosphorus.

“We are focused on understanding mechanisms that are responsible for increasing phosphorus availability in materials like manure,” says Leite.

Poultry manure is full of calcium and requires higher temperature treatments to turn the waste into biochar, however, these higher temperatures can have an effect on the amount of phosphorus available.

In order to ensure that the biochar contained sufficient available phosphorus, the researchers enriched it with another mineral, magnesium, which protected the phosphorus from the heat and enabled it to form more soluble forms of phosphorus.

Using the IDEAS and VLS-PGM beamlines at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), the researchers were able to visualize the connection between phosphorus and magnesium and confirm the success of their technique.

Their findings were recently published in the scientific journal, Chemosphere.

While phosphorus reserves are found across the globe, the nutrient is a finite resource. Finding ways to recycle the mineral is an important issue for scientists.

“There’s no excuse for not using the phosphorus that is already in the food chain, for example, by reusing the waste that is already generated,” says Leite.

Leite says that synchrotron technology is essential for research into agricultural applications.

Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

New technique reveals insights on Vitamin B12

Researchers have implemented a new technique, based on the European XFEL’s ultrashort pulses, to gain insights into two compounds featuring vitamin B12. B12 is an important compound in many biological systems, and the new method will allow scientists to develop a much deeper understanding of its structure and behavior. The technique will enable better insights for a host of biological molecules, and could help in designing targeted drug therapies.

Scientists used the European XFEL’s bright and ultrashort X-ray pulses to probe the evolution of two B12 compounds in time, at intervals of just 10 trillionths of a second (100 fs). Scientists used green light to illuminate the B12 compounds, and looked at them using a new method of X-ray spectroscopy called time-resolved Valence-to-Core X-ray Emission Spectroscopy (tr-VtC XES) to take snapshots of each molecule focusing on different aspects of their structure. Through the combination of optical and X-ray measurements, researchers were able to learn about the specific behaviors of these B12 compounds, such as their reactions to visible light, as well as the way the molecules vibrate and recover their initial configuration.

“Similar techniques have been used to investigate B12 using only visible and ultraviolet light,” says Frederico Lima, Instrument Scientist at the FXE instrument. “But the advantage of using tr-VtC XES is that you can get an element sensitive measurement that is also rather straightforward to predict using modern quantum chemical theory. In other words, it becomes easier to understand what each individual element in the molecule is doing. This gives us a more precise picture of the vitamin’s behavior than previously possible.”

The study, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, also addresses a problem with measuring tr-VtC XES on biological systems such as those containing B12, namely, that they produce small, difficult to detect signals.

Read more on the European XFEL website

Image: Visualisations of the structure of two vitamin B12 compounds at a 2.6 angstrom resolution, (a) in reaction with a biological structure and (b) in a water-based environment.

Recycling phosphorus from wastewater to grow better crops

Scientists are helping close the loop on the sustainability cycle with research into nutrient-enhanced biochar — a charcoal-like material made by heating recycled biomass in the absence of oxygen (a process called pyrolysis). Biomass is any living or once-living material – including plants, trees, and animal waste — that can be used as a source of energy.

Daniel Strawn, Professor of Environmental Soil Chemistry at the University of Idaho, and his colleagues are interested in enhancing biochar – which can be used as an amendment to promote soil health — by adding phosphorus, a crucial nutrient for crops.

The research team, which also included scientists from the University of Saskatchewan and Washington State University, has focused its efforts on recovering phosphorus from wastewater.

“Phosphorus is a limited resource, taken out of the ground, processed to produce fertilizer, and eventually it ends up in wastewater,” says Strawn. “We are developing technology to recover it using biochar in a water treatment process.”

Biochar is an effective sponge ­that can soak up phosphorous and other nutrients, like nitrogen, from waterways. The team is testing this treatment process on municipal and agricultural wastewater systems.

With the help of the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at USask, Strawn and his colleagues confirmed in a recent paper which type of phosphorous had been absorbed by the biochar — a crucial step to understanding and refining their process.

Read more on the CLS website

Olof Karis becomes Director for MAX IV

Olof Karis, former Interim Director of MAX IV, has been appointed as the Director of MAX IV following an open recruitment process and the recommendation of the MAX IV Board. The decision was made by the Vice-Chancellor of Lund University, the host university for MAX IV.

MAX IV, Sweden’s synchrotron, is fully operational with 16 beamlines and 1400 users yearly from academia and industry. Olof Karis has led MAX IV as Interim Director since March 2022, through finishing the Strategic Plan for 2023–2032 and a positive review by the Swedish Research Council in November. He has also navigated challenges related to increasing operating costs.

“I am enthusiastic about the possibility of continuing to work for MAX IV. It is a fantastic facility with great people. My focus for the near future is to make a case for longer-term funding of MAX IV. We need stability to continue facilitating research that keeps our society strong in facing future challenges,” says Karis.

In collaboration with the scientific community, MAX IV aims to continuously develop existing beamlines and construct several complementary ones in the next decade to make optimal use of already-made investments in the infrastructure.

“The research conducted by our users at MAX IV benefits the community in many areas, with an impact on circular economy and environment, sustainable energy, and health. Our technical advancements with the MAX IV synchrotron are transformative, enabling us to see details we’ve never been able to before. We can approach what has previously been unsolvable problems,” concludes Karis.

Read more on the MAX IV website