The Waiting Game

 

The Big Bang that created our universe took place in a fraction of a second. If you touch a hot stove, your nerve endings will send messages to your brain so quickly that pain will feel instantaneous. Many crucial scientific processes take place in a flash – but others happen much, much more slowly. 

Think about rust and the way that it creeps up over time, or the formation of rocks over thousands of years. There are all sorts of ultra-slow processes taking place around us all the time, processes we never even notice. And yet some have the potential to significantly impact on our lives.
 
It’s a lot harder to monitor reactions like these, particularly in depth. Until recently, scientists could only view the behaviour of individual atoms and molecules over a short period – usually just seconds and really no more than a few days.
 
But as scientific technology pushes forwards, it’s becoming easier to explore slow motion science in unprecedented detail. Diamond’s Long Duration Experiment Facility – or LDE for short – is the only platform in the world where users can study atomic and molecular behaviour using intense synchrotron light over a period of up to two years.
 
Scientists can then use their findings to model much larger timescales – hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. Twenty experiments can take place at once on the LDE, and it’s home to some extraordinary work.
 

When we take pharmaceutical drugs, we’re safe in the knowledge that they have been rigorously tested to ensure effectiveness and stability. But the sub-microscopic structure of those drugs might change over time, particularly in hot and humid climates.

It’s important to understand how drugs change in these circumstances because this impacts on their performance. And so scientists from University College London are using the LDE to examine molecular changes to drug structure over many months and under high humidity. Their findings could help to inform guidelines for taking drugs in different climates – good news for those living and travelling overseas.
From the very humid to the very cold: scientists from Diamond and the University of Bangor are using the LDE to study the long-term formation of minerals within Arctic sea ice.
 
The Earth is becoming warmer far too quickly and this has consequences for the world’s ice caps, which are melting at an alarming rate, and for Earth’s future climate. By studying such slow processes within sea iceat the smallest scale and over many years, the group hope to support more accurate predictions regarding the long-term impact of global warming on the Arctic and, ultimately, the planet as a whole.
 
But Earth isn’t the only planet being explored on the LDE. The fifth planet from the Sun, Jupiter, is surrounded by 67 separate moons. Being so far away from the Sun’s heat means that some of Jupiter’s moons are extensively covered with ice. On Europa, for example, this may conceal a sub-surface ocean and therefore a possible habitat in which life might have arisen.
 
Scientists from Diamond and the University of Keele are trying to learn more about these icy moons and the minerals forming on their surfaces. The processes behind the formation of these ice covered moons would have taken billions of years and by studying the long-term behaviour of how atoms arrange themselves under freezing conditions, the group hopes to shed some light on how the materials evolved and the processes that shaped these distant objects.
 
Slow motion science is accelerating our understanding in all sorts of fields. But there’s one area in particular where super-slow reactions are crucial: energy.
 
 

 Claire Corkhill (university of Sheffield) on I11, the long duration beamline

 

Have you ever experienced the supreme frustration of having an old phone or laptop that can’t hold a charge? Lithium ion batteries are commonly used in consumer tech, but over time the cathodes that help to generate a current become degraded. This causes our gadgets to lose precious charge, triggering that most modern of all problems: the dodgy battery.

 
On the LDE, scientists from University College London are exploring the atomic processes behind the degradation of cathodes within these batteries over time. If we can study the tiny changes that gradually occur, we may be able to work out how this process is happening and how to prevent it: hello longer-lasting tech.
 
Batteries are a well-established element of the energy mix, but we’re also seeing other new innovations coming forward that could help us to meet energy needs in a greener way.
Scientists are looking at all sorts of ways of trapping toxic gases. One approach is to use an artificially-constructed sub-microscopic structure called a ‘metal organic framework’. Known as MOFs, these frameworks are made up of molecules that together form a cage-like shape.
 
MOFs can be thought of as chemical sponges: they absorb certain gasses and keep them locked away inside. If we can learn how to fully exploit their potential, MOFs could help us to remove some of the toxic gasses currently released into the atmosphere.
But before we start fitting MOFs to the inside of cooling towers and cars we need to know more about how they behave over time. There’s no point in locking away all of the toxic gas if it’s just going to be released again as the structure degrades.
 
And so scientists from the University of Manchester are studying the behaviour of MOFs using the LDE. They want to explore how the molecular framework alters over months and years, and whether this impacts on the structural integrity of the MOF and its ability to contain gasses.
We want MOFs that work for thousands of years, but some processes need to be understood over even longer timescales.
 
A small percentage of the UK’s nuclear waste needs to be carefully stored until it decays and is no longer radioactive. But there’s a problem: this can take hundreds of thousands of years.
The UK government plans to bury this waste deep underground in a carefully constructed facility. But before we start building, it’s important to be sure that the structure is indeed capable of outlasting the radioactive waste.
 
That’s why University of Sheffield scientists are exploring the interactions between cement and water over time. All manmade structures are affected by their environment. So we need to anticipate how cement used in the facility could interact with surrounding groundwater over thousands of years – that way we can be sure that we create a structure that is truly built to last. As our ability to study long-term atomic and molecular processes improves, we can expect to learn even more about crucial reactions taking place over extended timescales.
 
From medicines to environment, from space science to energy – the power of the LDE just goes to show: not all of what matters can be measured in seconds.
 
 

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