On the outside, it appears something like a giant cake tin, while on the inside it's more resemblant of a super-facility from a classic 007 film.

And you'd be forgiven for thinking its name sounds like a 1980s Sydney disco club.

This is the Australian Synchrotron, in Melbourne's southeast, and it's basically a gigantic microscope that can be used to study everything from advanced materials and biomedics to food technology and art forensics.

A model of the Australian Synchrotron, in Melbourne's south-east. Photo / Jamie Morton
A model of the Australian Synchrotron, in Melbourne's south-east. Photo / Jamie Morton

How it actually works is mind-bogglingly incredible.


Electrons are first generated inside an "electron gun" then fired with the power of 90,000 volts into a machine called a Linear Accelerator, where they're whizzed up to nearly the speed of light.

Next, they're transferred into the "Booster Ring" - where the electrons' energy is boosted and dipole electromagnets force the electrons to adopt an almost circular path, zapping round at an amazing pace of a million laps each half-second.

They're then fed into another outer ring - the "Storage Ring" - where the electrons circulate at a constant energy for around 30 to 40 hours, continuously generating intense synchrotron light.

This light, which is created by bending the path of electrons through magnetic fields, is channelled down long pipelines, called beamlines, which scientists can draw on for research.

Resembling a super-facility from a classic 007 film. Photo / Jamie Morton
Resembling a super-facility from a classic 007 film. Photo / Jamie Morton

Each beamline includes different types of filters, mirrors and other optical components that prepare the light for use in a range of different scientific experiments.

Finally, the light winds up at the beamlines' "End Stations", a lab where the light interacts with with a sample.

Detectors positioned around the sample measure how the light is emitted, transmitted, scattered, or diffracted by the sample, and researchers use the information to determine the sample's composition or atomic structure.

Scientists have been using it to examine the innermost workings of the immune system, testing potential new treatments for cystic fibrosis, HIV-Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.

"The beamline ends up acting like a microscope and on the computer screen, you can actually see where the electrons are," said Kiwi researcher Dr Tom Caradoc-Davies, a principal scientist in macromolecular crystallography based at the synchrotron.

"And that to me is really cool - you can study a protein for 20 years ... but when you [see] the structure, you finally understand how it works."

In one of the synchrotron's quirkier applications, scientists used it to reveal details hidden in a painting by famous Australian artist Arthur Streeton.

They were able to peer beneath layers of white lead paint that Streeton had used to cover up a rare self-portrait.

Today, scientists are using it to investigate whether mysterious occurrences of the element zinc in the brain's hippocampus might be linked to degenerative memory problems.

- Jamie Morton is visiting Australia as part of an international media delegation looking at research and innovation, and hosted by the Australian Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.