02 May 2007   |   News

Companies queue for 'beam time'

Big Physics meets Industry, as the UK's biggest new science facility, Diamond synchrotron, prepares to welcome corporate customers.

It isn't often that small tech businesses want to play with the toys of Big Physics. Companies may pitch for the odd contract to supply bits of complicated technology, but then they pack up and go home when the boffins turn up in their white coats.

The Diamond Light Source at Rutherford Laboratory near Oxford is a different story. Companies big and small – among them such drug companies as Pfizer and materials researchers at Rolls-Royce - are preparing their cases for time on the machine, the largest science facility to be built in the UK for almost 30 years. Some time early next year, researchers from commercial organisations will join the queue for “beam time”.

Diamond is a synchrotron. It whizzes electrons around at high speed, using magnets to keep them on a circular path. A consequence of all that bending under a magnetic attraction is that the machine produces X-rays, and lots of them.

The brightest X-rays

Being bigger and better – and a lot more expensive – than machines that went before, the Diamond Light Source (DLS) emits brighter X-rays than such predecessors as the more prosaically named Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRS), which is operated by the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC), in Cheshire. Diamond, the brightest light source available until someone builds next year’s model, is more than 10,000 times brighter than the SRS.

Diamond may not be as well known as other big physics machines, such as CERN, mostly because they built it on time and to cost. But that doesn't mean that companies haven’t got the message and aren't already in the queue to put things in front of those X-rays.

Pharmaceutical and biotech companies will be among those early business users. They want to use those X-rays to look at the structures of interesting molecules.

Pfizer eyes drug candidates

One of the companies that plans to be at the head of the queue for Diamond is the drugs giant Pfizer. David Brown, of Pfizer Global Research & Development in Sandwich in the UK, says that synchrotrons are important tools in the development of new pharmaceuticals.

Brown wants to use DLS to study the crystal structure of drug candidates. “Structure-based drug design is widely used in pharma and biotech to advance discovery programmes,” he explains.

“Pfizer globally uses ‘a lot’ of synchrotron time but this has become a buyer’s market. Advances in beam line technology mean we will pick the best for our needs. Hopefully, Diamond will deliver one of the best beam lines and services for the UK and global community.”

Diamond sits on a platform the size of 5 football pitches. Diamond Light Source Ltd. is responsible for construction, commissioning and operation of the new machine. Construction of the first phase ended, on time, earlier this year and the first academic researchers are now working on the machine, helping to shake it down and iron out the inevitable teething problems that bug any new bit of kit.

The construction bill

The first phase of Diamond cost £260 million for the construction of the building, the synchrotron and the first seven all-important beam lines. These cover research in macromolecular crystallography, materials and magnetism, microfocus spectroscopy, extreme conditions and nanoscience.

A second development phase, costing a further £120 million, will add 15 more beam lines. Future expansion, as yet not costed or scheduled, will add four or five beams a year until Diamond has 30 to 35 research stations.

The UK government picked up 86 per cent of the tab for Diamond. The Wellcome Trust, the world’s biggest medical charity, and more recently a partner in a failed bid to buy up the UK’s largest chain of pharmacists, holds the remaining 14 per cent share.

Wellcome’s support for Diamond is a recognition of the growing importance of large facilities, and synchrotron light sources, in the life sciences, in analysing protein structures, for example. The trust is also funding other activities at Diamond, including a new membrane protein laboratory.

Rolls and materials research

As well as its support for research on protein structures and pharmaceuticals, Diamond expects to attract materials researchers. One of the companies represented on the machines industry advisory group, the Diamond Industrial Science Committee (DISCo), is Rolls-Royce, which is always looking for new materials to push the performance of jet engines.

Quite how companies will pay for their time on DLS is to be decided. The lab may be the brightest around, but has to compete against a raft of lesser machines. Malcolm Skingle, Academic Liaison Director with the pharmaceuticals company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) echoes the warning that “there is a buyer’s market for synchrotrons”. Diamond is competing with nearly 50 light sources, adds Skingle, who is also chairman of the Diamond Industrial Science Committee (DISCo). For example, like many companies, GSK uses the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France.

DISCo is still working with DLS to establish acceptable terms for corporate customers. This may involved new ways of buying time. As it is, most synchrotrons sell time by the eight-hour shift. Companies then have to build up enough work to justify the cost of that time.

‘Pay as you go’

Skingle says that DISCo can steer Diamond towards “a much friendlier system” for industrial users. For example, companies would like to get away from eight-hour shifts. “We save crystals and send staff to Grenoble to spend a couple of days on a session,” says Skingle. They then return to their labs to analyse their data.

An alternative could be a “pay as you go” regime. Companies could send samples to Diamond by courier. Well-trained technicians could then put samples through the synchrotron. The company’s researchers wouldn’t need to leave their labs. They could analyse the resulting data on line and direct the work.

One smaller company that hopes to be early in the queue is Evotec, which describes itself as a “drug discovery and development partner for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies”. Based just three miles away, Evotec is one of a large number of small high-tech businesses in the are around DLS.

Evotec wants to enlist DSL to support its work on drugs discovery and development working with fragments of new molecular candidates. “We will be doing a lot of fragment work on Diamond,” says John Barker, head of crystallography and computational chemistry with Evotec. This is possible because of the quality of the crystallography data that DLS will deliver.

Companies actually have several ways of obtaining beam time on DLS. They can compete with the academic world for free for “non proprietary” time whose results will appear in the open literature. For more commercial work, where the results stay secret, industry will be limited to a total of 10 per cent of Diamond’s time. But DLS knows that some beams are more interesting to businesses than others, so they can have up to 30 per cent on the time on any one instrument when it comes to beam lines given over to crystallography, for example.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up