What’s the big diff? The beamline that Australia built in Japan

16 April 2013

A modest but highly significant chapter in Australia’s scientific relationship with Japan came to an end in March 2013.

In 1992, the high-tech Photon Factory in Tsukuba, 50 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, became home to a fascinating piece of research equipment called the Australian National Beamline Facility (ANBF). (See history of Australian access to synchrotrons.)

Synchrotron science had revolutionised experimental techniques in the UK, Europe, Asia and the USA in the 1970s and 80s. Keen to ensure that Australian researchers could keep up with these revolutionary new capabilities without being hampered by the long lead-times required for access to overseas synchrotrons, the federal government charged ANSTO with establishing a dedicated Australian beamline at the Photon Factory at the KEK Laboratory in Tsukuba. 

asrp2.jpgBuilt in Australia and tended in Japan by three young scientists from ANSTO: Richard Garrett, David Cookson and Gary Foran, the ANBF was a visionary project that enabled Australian researchers to use a dedicated synchrotron beamline for the first time. (Photo at right, L-R: Gary Foran, Richard Garrett and David Cookson)

“You have to start off in the sandbox before you can build a three-ring circus,” David Cookson says. “The Big Diff and other ANBF instrumentation have been an important training ground – a sandbox if you like – for Australian synchrotron science, but the facility has also held its own for 20 years, hosting thousands of visiting researchers and producing world-class science all the way.”

“A lot of what we did was very innovative,” David says. “We were developing and using techniques that now require highly-specialised, dedicated synchrotron beamlines.”

The Big Diff was the brainchild of CSIRO’s Steve Wilkins, who passed away recently in Melbourne. [LINK] It enabled researchers to analyse samples using x-ray diffraction, reflectometry and phase contrast imaging – the latter being an ultra-high-contrast version of the x-ray images you get from a hospital or a radiographer. As the years went by, other techniques such as x-ray spectroscopy started to dominate at ANBF, although the Big Diff was occasionally called into service for some of the more unusual experiments.

“Having the ANBF made a big difference,” David says. “Without the success that Australian scientists enjoyed at the ANBF, the expanded Australian Synchrotron Research Program might never have happened in the USA and Taiwan. The Australian Synchrotron would not have such a great set of beamlines – and researchers would not be making such an impressive impact using the synchrotron techniques now available in Australia.” (See history of Australian access to synchrotrons.)

All good things must end, however, and the ANBF has made way for newer facilities. The venerable Big Diff is in transit back to Australia where it is likely to go on display as a reminder of Australia’s scientific spirit.

And what of the three young physicists who built the ANBF in Japan? After many years operating the ANBF beamline and acting as an advisor to the Australian Synchrotron, Garry Foran now works for another research agency in Japan. Richard Garrett is ANSTO’s senior advisor in synchrotron science, and David Cookson is Head of Beamline Science and Operations at the Australian Synchrotron.