Synchrotron Light and its Benefits

Synchrotron light is a type of extremely bright electromagnetic radiation that extends over a wide spectrum, that is, it is composed of several types of light, from infrared, through visible light and ultraviolet radiation, and reaching X-rays.

With the use of this special light it is possible to penetrate matter and reveal characteristics of its molecular and atomic structure for the investigation of all types of material. Its wide spectrum allows carrying out different types of analysis using each of different kinds of light of which synchrotron light is composed. Its high brightness allows extremely fast experiments and the investigation of details of materials at the nanometer scale. With synchrotron light it is also possible to follow the evolution in time of physical, chemical, and biological processes that occur in fractions of a second.

The characteristics of this light also allow these analyzes to be made while the materials are submitted to different conditions of temperature and pressure, of vacuum and flow of different gases, of electric and magnetic fields, and many other variables. Thus, it is possible to carry out experiments under the same conditions in which the samples are found in nature – such as inside the earth’s crust – or under the conditions in which the materials will be used, as in industrial processes, for example.

SOIL

In agriculture, one or more nutrients needed for plant growth and development are supplied or supplemented through fertilizers, which can be mineral or organic substances, natural or synthetic. However, the physico-chemical path taken by nutrients from their dispersion in the soil to their absorption and incorporation in plant metabolism is still not well understood, causing the inefficient use of fertilizers, which is harmful to the environment.

The soil is a solid and heterogeneous combination of organic and inorganic compounds, immersed in aqueous solutions and amidst plant roots. The chemical, physical and biological processes happening at the atomic and molecular level control the transport, availability and absorption of nutrients, as well as the transport of pollutants and soil contamination.

Synchrotron light allows the investigation of the structure of this region, called the rhizosphere, at different scales and in high resolution. It reveals how atoms and molecules of both nutrients and pollutants “walk” in the soil, and how they change chemically when interacting with other molecules. In this way, the processes that occur in the soil can be better known and controlled, contributing to a agricultural production which is both more efficient and less aggressive to the environment.

NEW DRUGS

From the moment a molecule related to a disease is identified, whether it is produced by an infectious agent or by the human organism itself, it can become a therapeutic target, that is, a target for the action of a drug. As in a puzzle, the drug and target molecules must fit together to prevent the target molecules’ action in our organism.

Therefore, the search for a drug becomes more efficient if we know the shape of the molecules that must fit together. However, in this drug discovery game, unlike a puzzle, the pieces are not visible to the naked eye.

Synchrotron light is an essential tool in the investigation of the three-dimensional structure of molecules, which allows to understand in depth its action in the organism and how it interacts with a potential drug. In this way, it is possible to discover new drugs, or to understand the mechanisms of known drugs to increase their effectiveness.

CATALYSTS

Catalysts are substances that facilitate chemical reactions used in practically all industrial processes that involve the transformation of primary products. The search for more efficient and more accessible catalysts has a direct impact on the economy and the environment.

This investigation, however, requires that catalysts be studied under operating conditions, that is, simulating the same conditions under which they will be applied in industrial processes. These conditions include high temperatures, high pressures, and the presence of different reagents.

Synchrotron light allows the study of these chemical reactions in real time, with the monitoring of changes in the structure of both reagents and catalysts. This allows for a detailed understanding of the functioning of a given catalyst, and guides modifications that can be made to improve its performance, making it, for example, cheaper to produce, more selective to the product of interest, and more active at lower temperatures and pressures.

FERTILIZERS

Nitrogen is an important chemical element for plants, a component of proteins and chlorophyll. However, although nitrogen gas ($\rm N_2$) is abundant in the atmosphere, it cannot be absorbed directly from the air by plants, it needs to be transformed into other chemical forms, such as ammonia ($\rm NH_3$).

Likewise, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are obtained through chemical reactions between atmospheric nitrogen and materials from the oil and mining industries. This reaction requires extreme temperature and pressure conditions, and it is estimated that the process consumes between 1 and 2% of the world’s energy production.

On the other hand, this transformation of nitrogen into ammonia already occurs in the soil itself at ambient pressure and temperature, provided by enzymes, called nitrogenases, which are produced by bacteria.

Synchrotron light allows investigating not only the three-dimensional structure of the arrangement of atoms that make up these enzymes, but also their interaction with other molecules and their mechanism of action in breaking nitrogen and forming ammonia. Understanding this mechanism is essential for its industrial use in the most efficient and sustainable production of fertilizers.

NEGLECTED DISEASES

Neglected tropical diseases are diseases endemic to tropical regions, which especially affect low-income populations. In addition, they are diseases against which there is insufficient investment in research, drug production and transmission control.

One of them is, for example, Malaria. This is an infectious, febrile, potentially serious disease, caused by the parasite of the genus Plasmodium, transmitted mainly by the bite of infected mosquitoes. During the development of the parasite in the red blood cells, it undergoes several transformations that allow its spread in the host and the infection of other mosquitoes, continuing its life cycle.

Synchrotron light allows the knowledge of the three-dimensional structure of the different stages of development of this and other parasites, which guides the development of ways to attack them, preventing the transmission of the disease. Synchrotron light also allows a global view of the mechanisms of cellular metabolism, from the atomic level to the tissue level, opening not only perspectives in parasitology but also in the understanding of processes related to other diseases, nutrition, and enzymatic activity.

The challenges to achieve sustainable development are the availability of abundant, clean, and cheap energy. In this way, new materials need to be developed to improve the conversion of biomass into fuels and to efficiently channel the light energy from the sun, kinetic energy from the winds or potential energy from water resources.

In this sense, more efficient and less polluting industrial production is also essential, through the creation of cheaper and selective catalysts, of lighter and more resistant renewable materials – such as plastics, glass, and fibers – as well as components for increasingly more powerful and more economical electronic devices.

Synchrotron light offers a huge variety of ways to see, in detail, the interactions of electrons with each other and with light, the connections between chemical elements and their interactions with other substances. The combination of these tools is essential for the development of new materials.

RENEWABLE ENERGY

The transformation of biomass, such as sugarcane straw and bagasse, which are residues of the sugar and alcohol industry, into fuels and chemicals has the potential to become a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Making this transformation efficient and economically viable is one of the great challenges of this century.

For the conversion of biomass into renewable chemicals, it is necessary that the carbohydrates that compose it, such as cellulose, are broken down into smaller sugars. Catalysts are interesting in this process because they are easily separated from the medium in which the chemical reaction occurs, can be recycled and are also resistant to the aggressive medium necessary for the transformation of biomass. Another possibility is the use of enzymatic cocktails produced by microorganisms specialized in the degradation of plant biomass.

Synchrotron light assists in the development low-cost catalysts and enzymatic cocktails, which promote high conversion of the reagent and selectivity to the product of interest.

NEW THERAPIES

Cancer is collection of related diseases characterized by the uncontrolled multiplication of cells, and one of the main methods for its treatment is chemotherapy, which uses drugs to block the growth or destroy the affected cells. Most of the drugs in use act by interfering with mitosis, the cellular mechanism by which new cells are produced. Therefore, both cancerous and healthy cells are affected, leading to several side effects.

Worldwide, considerable effort has been directed towards the development of new methods that minimize damage to the organism. One of these methods is the use of nanoparticles, clusters of a few hundred atoms, which can carry and deliver the medicine directly to sick cells. This kind of nanoparticle also offer great potential in fighting bacteria – including those that are resistant to antibiotics – and viruses.

Synchrotron light contributes to the study of nanoparticles in general, and to the development of this and other new methods for the treatment of cancer, to fight resistant bacteria, viruses, and many other new innovative forms of treatment.

OIL AND GAS

Even with the intense search for alternative energy sources, the world is ​​still largely dependent on oil. Thus, new materials are needed not only to improve extraction and refining of fossil fuels, but also to improve their efficiency and to promote the recycling of carbon dioxide ($\rm CO_2$) and other substances resulting from their use.

The exploration of oil and gas in deep waters requires, for example, an understanding of the mechanical and transport properties of the materials under which oil and gas are found. The heterogeneity and multiphase and multiscale properties of these materials pose numerous challenges for their study.

Synchrotron light allows analyses that make the connection between micro- and macroscopic scale, including measurements under different temperature and pressure conditions present inside the reservoirs.

BENEFITS FOR INDUSTRY

Synchrotron light is an ally of the global industry and has already benefited the development of numerous products. Pharmaceutical industry Abbott used synchrotron light in the development of Kaletra, one of the drugs prescribed to treat HIV infection. P&G used the technology to develop conditioners, detergents, and other products, while Dow Chemical used synchrotron light to develop materials to improve the absorption of disposable diapers.

Synchrotron light has been used in the development of more durable, resistant and cheap batteries for electric cars, cell phones and laptops and for the development of new semiconductors, capable of increasing the efficiency of organic solar cells for energy production electrical.

Many of the largest US companies have used synchrotron light in their products. Exxon Mobil, Chevron, General Electric, Ford, HP, GM, IBM, Boeing, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Novartis, Intel and 3M are among these companies. In Brazil, companies such as Vale, Braskem, Petrobras and Oxiteno also sought in the synchrotron light support for the solution of sophisticated technological challenges.