SPring-8 is located in the mountains of Japan, about a three hour drive from Hiroshima and approximately a nine hour drive from Tokyo. It’s location was chosen to reduce vibrations and possible damage from earthquakes. (NOTE: I have yet to experience an earthquake or even a tremor here, so although they are “common” in Japan, they rarely cause damage, and with SPring-8’s location, you may never experience one). The management and operation of SPring-8 is complex. RIKEN, the official “owner” of SPring-8, is the research arm of the Japanese government. Per SPring-8’s website: “SPring-8 is owned and managed by RIKEN, and the Japan Synchrotron Radiation Research Institute (JASRI) is commissioned by RIKEN to operate and maintain the facility.” This statement is rather vague, but in practice both administrations both simultaneously manage the facility and conduct their own research.
SPring-8, although it may first look like a spelling error, stands for Super Photon ring, 8 GeV (giga-electron volts). Photons? Rings? what? Spring-8 is a synchrotron facility, meaning that it produces very high powered x-rays by means of accelerating electrons to approximately the speed of light, and then forcing them to turn a corner (bending magnet) or “wiggling” them with closely spaced magnets with opposite poles (undulator or “wiggler”). This rapid change in direction (velocity) causes the electrons to emit very powerful x-rays (photons) that are used to probe substances at the atomic and molecular levels. After being accelerated by a linear accelerator, the electrons are sent into the “storage ring” which is a ring shaped building 1435.95 m in circumference. Around the inner radius of the storage ring building is the vacuum chamber that actually holds the electrons. Experiments are done in experimental “hutches” spaced around the storage ring building. As of April 3rd, 2012, there were 54 operational experimental hutches.
The storage “ring” however, is not really a ring, but a series of short straight segments alternating with magnets. These magnets, as mentioned earlier, are either bending style magnets, or undulator style magnets, which change the direction of motion of the electrons, causing photons to be emitted. Spring-8 has a capacity of 38 undulators and 62 beamlines, although only 54 have been constructed to date.
In lab-based x-ray diffraction experiments and in hospitals, x-rays are produced by accelerating electrons to a high velocity via a high voltage, and then colliding these electrons with a target metal, which then emits the high-energy photons used in the experiment/image. This method, however, is extremely inefficient, with most of the energy lost to heat. Additionally, the range of available photon energies is limited. A synchrotron can produce X-rays over a range of different photon energies. The most important factor however, is that the brilliance of synchrotron X-ray radiation, measured in units of photons/sec/mm2/mrad2 in 0.1% bandwidth (basically how “concentrated” the beam is), is over five orders of magnitude greater than that of traditional x-ray tube based sources. This allows for far more accurate and faster results than with traditional methods.
Synchrotron radiation can be used in an enormous amount of different research areas, ranging from investigations of magnetic skyrmions to precise medical imaging. One of the most common uses of SPring-8 is for materials science research, ranging from novel materials for hydrogen storage to organic conductive polymers.
Perhaps as diverse as the research itself is the variety of different people and industries that come to do research at SPring-8. Out of the 54 operational beamlines, 26 are public beamlines, 17 are contract beamlines, 9 are RIKEN beamlines, and the remaining two are accelerator diagnostics beamlines. The public beamlines are available for almost anyone to use. Individuals, labs, universities and companies without their own dedicated beamline often come to use these beamlines. If you agree to publish your results after using SPring-8, there is no cost to use the facility. If you choose not to publish, then the cost is ¥60,000 (≈$770) per hour of beamline use. The RIKEN beamlines are beamlines reserved by RIKEN, the research arm of the Japanese government, to conduct various research. As an co-op student, you are officially employed by RIKEN, although you may be assigned to any beamline to work. The contract beamlines are built and paid for by an outside company or group of companies. Toyota, for example has its own beamline, BL33XU.
As a student, depending upon your major, you will be assigned a beamline at which to work. During experiment time, you may be asked to assist in the preparation of samples, set-up of the experiment within the experimental hutch, or anything else to do with conducting the experiment. Outside of experiment time, you may be asked to analyze data, create programs to assist other users in data analysis, and model the data using graphics software. Depending on your knowledge level and ambition, you may be able to help with a variety of different research with different people.