SASKATOON – The Canadian Light Source Synchrotron has hit a major milestone. University of Saskatchewan researchers Courtney Phillips and Derek Peak, along with the CLS Spherical Grating Monochromator (SGM) beamline scientist, Tom Regier, recently published the 1,000th peer-reviewed paper to come out of data collected at the research facility.

Peak and his team have been pushing synchrotron soil science forward since the facility’s earliest days.

“As long as there have been CLS beamlines, our group has been over there working,” said Peak.

Peak and Regier have worked together on several soil science projects, unearthing the chemical changes that ultimately determine metal toxicity in soil, groundwater, and eventually plants. For the 1,000th paper, they took a look at liquid-copper solutions.

“At the end of the day what we want to understand how copper actually behaves in natural systems” said Peak.

That copper comes from all kinds of human applications, from mining to agriculture.

The team wanted to understand how aqueous copper bonded with various organics, which would help researchers understand copper’s potential toxicity in natural systems. If copper bonds with organic matter in soil, it is unlikely it will move around too much in natural systems. That’s a good thing, because too much copper can be toxic to aquatic organisms.

The team used soft X-rays, which are easily absorbed by even the lightest elements, including oxygen and nitrogen, to look at how aqueous copper interacts with dissolved organic matter.

At first glance, this seems like a straightforward task. But in fact, measuring liquid samples presents a special challenge on the SGM. Since soft X-rays are so easily absorbed by light elements, samples need to be kept in a vacuum chamber in order to be analyzed. For solid samples this is fairly simple to achieve, and is done regularly on SGM. However, liquids are trickier than solids, because the water in them evaporates in the vacuum chamber.

Though not the first research team to study aqueous samples in a soft X-ray beamline, the group developed a novel technique to address the evaporation issue.

The liquid samples lived in 3D-printed cells, which the researchers could continuously pump their solutions through, in order to do real-time copper chemistry. The liquid samples were separated from the vacuum by a silicon nitride window thousands of times thinner than a human hair, about 100 nm thick.  The soft X-rays are able to penetrate through the window and reach the solution, allowing them to be measured.

“We’re doing chemistry in the beamline. Everything happens right there, in place and in real time.”

Regier’s were also one of the first teams in the world to use silicon drift detectors on a soft X-Ray beamline, a technique that enables researchers to get separate fluorescence signals from each element, instead of as one lump. This made it possible to measure realistic systems as never before.

“The combination of techniques that we were using didn’t exist anywhere in the world,” said Peak, “but now we can do it, and other scientists can take advantage of it.”

Phillips joined the team as an undergraduate funded by an NSERC-USRA student in her undergrad scholarship, and the paper became the core of her Master’s of science project funded by an NSERC CGS-M fellowship. More funding came from Peak’s NSERC Discovery grant, and the CLS funding agencies.

Tom Regier, Derek Peak and Courtney Philips look down at a sample
Tom Regier (left), Canadian Light Source SGM beamline scientist, with University of Saskatchewan soil science researchers Derek Peak and Courtney Phillips, recently published the 1,000th peer-reviewed paper using data collected from the CLS. 

Story by Victoria Martinez
Photo by Mark Ferguson, available for use in the CLS Flickr Gallery






Phillips, Courtney L., Tom Z. Regier, and Derek Peak. "Aqueous Cu (II)–Organic Complexation Studied in Situ Using Soft X-ray and Vibrational Spectroscopies."Environmental science & technology 47.24 (2013): 14290-14297.

About the CLS:

The Canadian Light Source is Canada’s national centre for synchrotron research and a global centre of excellence in synchrotron science and its applications. Located on the University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon, the CLS has hosted 1,700 researchers from academic institutions, government, and industry from 10 provinces and territories; delivered over 26,000 experimental shifts; received over 6,600 user visits; and provided a scientific service critical in over 1,000 scientific publications, since beginning operations in 2005.

CLS operations are funded by Canada Foundation for Innovation, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Western Economic Diversification Canada, National Research Council of Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Government of Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatchewan.

Synchrotrons work by accelerating electrons in a tube to nearly the speed of light using powerful magnets and radio frequency waves. By manipulating the electrons, scientists can select different forms of very bright light using a spectrum of X-ray, infrared, and ultraviolet light to conduct experiments.

Synchrotrons are used to probe the structure of matter and analyze a host of physical, chemical, geological and biological processes. Information obtained by scientists can be used to help design new drugs, examine the structure of surfaces in order to develop more effective motor oils, build more powerful computer chips, develop new materials for safer medical implants, and help clean up mining wastes, to name a few applications.

For more information visit the CLS website 
For photos to accompany this story and more images from the CLS visit our Flickr gallery

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