president of the Executive Committee of ALBA synchrotron
Doctor Ramon Pascual presides over the Executive Committee of the consortium that manages the recently inaugurated ALBA synchrotron, the most important scientific facility ever built in Spain. He is a physicist at the UAB and has worked for nearly two decades to create a synchrotron light laboratory in Catalonia. Pascual should be considered one of the fathers of this great project.
The recently inaugurated ALBA synchrotron in Cerdanyola del Vallès (Barcelona) is the largest scientific facility ever built in Spain –the snail-shaped building occupies 18,500 square meters on a 65,000-square-meter plot– and the first of its kind in southwest Europe. It will start working in 2011, allowing researchers to carry out studies in diverse fields such as life sciences, chemistry, physics and materials sciences.
The Governments of Catalonia and Spain contributed equally to the 201-million-euro investment, thanks to which the Consortium for the Construction, Equipment and Exploitation of the synchrotron light laboratory (CELLS) was able to build ALBA.
What does it mean for Catalonia to have a facility like the synchrotron?
On an economic level, it is certainly the most expensive scientific facility ever built in Spain. However, despite being a significant investment, the economic impact and cost/benefit have been studied, showing that it is a profitable facility.
From a scientific point of view, it will give Spanish and Catalan researchers a series of tools that they didn’t previously have and, therefore, makes us much more competitive than before.
The social aspect is connected to the companies that work with technology related to acceleration techniques, for which we are a good ally in improving their competitiveness. Economic studies show that people who work in facilities like ours can later apply this knowledge to their products, generating profit.
What practical discoveries can be made at ALBA?
Anyone who studies small structures will find that synchrotron light is incomparable. From physicists to biologists, chemists or people from other fields that seem quite different, like art or environmental studies. One example of the practical results that can be derived is the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which was awarded this year to three researchers that have studied and defined the structure of a macromolecule that is essential to life, the ribosome, using synchrotron light. Other examples include electronic devices in laptop computers or mobile telephones.
How many scientists will benefit from this facility?
Most people who use synchrotron light, here and in other facilities, are basic researchers that publish their findings. At synchrotrons like ALBA, the number of business researchers is rarely above 5% of the total. This is because most companies don’t need synchrotron light to carry out their specific type of research.
At the moment we have seven experimental end-stations, two more have been approved and four more are still to be defined. For the seven beamlines that will start up soon, we have around one thousand scientists scheduled to come do experiments over the next year. They are generally basic scientists, but there are also a few companies that have shown interest in using the synchrotron light.
How do you plan to approach companies in the biotechnology, biomedicine and medical technology sector in Catalonia?
Some of our experimental beamlines are set aside for biology, to study proteins and molecules that are of interest to the medical/pharmaceutical sector. Some synchrotrons set aside beamlines for medical or therapeutic imaging, but they are very experimental and for the moment none of this kind have been established at our synchrotron. This doesn’t mean that they won't be in the future, but we have to build lines that meet the needs in Spain and Catalonia and believe this field is not yet mature.
Do you have any projects underway with companies?
Some of the beamlines we have are devoted to studying molecular structures, including viruses and proteins, and there are many people interested in using the synchrotron in this field. For example, there is a line for protein crystallography that some structural biology groups from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia’s Board of Scientific Research and the Autonomous University of Barcelona are interesting in using, in addition to some pharmaceutical laboratories.
What differences are there between the ALBA synchrotron and the LHC in Geneva?
The accelerator in Geneva is designed to study distances on the order of 10-17 meters, distances much smaller than the nucleus of an atom. They aim to generate large concentrations of energy in order to create new particles, reproduce the high-temperature conditions found at the origins of the universe, etc. We want to provide synchrotron light for researchers that study larger structures, on an atomic or molecular scale. Therefore, the aims of the two synchrotrons are completely different.
What advantages does ALBA have versus other existing international accelerators?
ALBA has the same power as the new synchrotron in the UK, Diamond; a bit more than the SLS in Switzerland or the SOLEIL in France, and we are number one in emittance (the characteristic of light that defines the quality of experiments that can be carried out).
How much does it cost to run the synchrotron per year?
The annual running costs for the synchrotron are approximately 15.5 million euros, and when we are running continuously this will reach an estimated 21 million euros, which makes up approximately 10% of the project costs.
How much will companies pay to use this facility?
A company would pay around a thousand euros per hour to use our facility. An hour in which the intensity of our x-rays allows them to do many things!
What impact will the proximity to the UAB have on opportunities for university scientists?
We are a facility designed to serve the whole country, not just one university. The advantage the UAB has is their proximity. In fact, there are many UAB departments that are interested in using our facility, like the Institute of Nanotechnology, which we are developing a joint project with. However, we don’t just do this with the UAB, we are also collaborating with the University of Valencia to develop another project.
And in terms of jobs?
We have 140 people on staff, not counting those in companies that have won tenders. One third of our personnel are foreigners –from 16 different countries- and the rest are Spanish or Spaniards that were working abroad. According to the results of an economic study carried out by economist José García-Montalvo, the ALBA project will generate between 300 and 400 new jobs.