SSRL Science Highlights Archive

Approximately 1,700 scientists visit SSRL annually to conduct experiments in broad disciplines including life sciences, materials, environmental science, and accelerator physics. Science highlights featured here and in our monthly newsletter, Headlines, increase the visibility of user science as well as the important contribution of SSRL in facilitating basic and applied scientific research. Many of these scientific highlights have been included in reports to funding agencies and have been picked up by other media. Users are strongly encouraged to contact us when exciting results are about to be published. We can work with users and the SLAC Office of Communication to develop the story and to communicate user research findings to a much broader audience. Visit SSRL Publications for a list of the hundreds of SSRL-related scientific papers published annually. Contact us to add your most recent publications to this collection.


June 2015
Steve Conradson, LANL/Synchrotron-SOLEIL, Sam Webb, Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource
EST Cover Image

When a geographical area is contaminated with radioactive elements, time and heat can cause them to combine with other atoms to form a variety of compounds. Knowing what compounds form and when they form is important for containing and cleaning contaminated sites. Computer models can make predictions but are limited to the currently known reactions and compounds that can be described in the laboratory.  A collaboration of scientists has taken samples from the fields of six different contaminated sites to discover which chemical species are formed from uranium and plutonium. The sites studied released these elements under different circumstances and into different environments.

X-ray diffraction, MEIS X-ray absorption spectroscopy
BL2-3, BL11-2
May 2015
Mathew Sajish, The Scripps Research Institute, Paul Schimmel, The Scripps Research Institute

Famous for its presence in red wine, the molecule resveratrol is present in many foods, including grapes, blueberries, and peanuts. Studies showing that resveratrol can elicit health benefits, including longevity in animals, have generated much interest in its effects on humans and its mechanisms of action. These are partly unknown but, recently, scientists found resveratrol can affect a stress response pathway associated with longevity.

Macromolecular Crystallography
April 2015

Creating novel enzymes to perform specific chemical reactions is a field of great promise, but it is still in its early stages. Efforts usually involve using well-studied protein structural and functional domains to create new active sites. Scientists have recently developed a different approach, creating the active site in the interface between proteins in a multi-protein complex. They started with a well-researched, natural protein that, in its natural state, does not form complexes with other proteins, and nor does it catalyze the desired reaction.

Macromolecular Crystallography
BL9-2, BL14-1
April 2015
Daniel Friebel, SUNCAT, Alexis T. Bell, JCAP

The sun provides more energy than what could ever possibly be consumed. However, switching to solar energy to end our dependence on fossil energy resources is made difficult not merely by how much is consumed, but rather by the pattern of how energy is used: significant amounts are consumed by road and air transportation and must be provided “on board” in the form of fuels. This problem could be solved with new devices that convert sunlight into renewable fuels, for example, by driving a light-induced current between two electrodes that split water by electrolysis into hydrogen and oxygen. Currently, the limiting step for the viability of this process is the oxygen evolution reaction (OER) that takes place at the anode. 

X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy
March 2015
Yijin Liu, Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, Joy C. Andrews, Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, Florian Meirer, Utrecht University, Bert M. Weckhuysen, Utrecht University

One of the most important processes used in petroleum refineries is called fluid catalytic cracking (FCC). This chemical process converts large or heavy molecules of crude oil into smaller and lighter hydrocarbons, such as gasoline. This useful conversion is due in great part to a tiny catalyst particle just 50 to 150 millionths of a meter in diameter. The particle consists of a complex mixture of silica-alumina, clay and zeolite in a porous structure that enables the crude oil molecules to flood the material and reach the catalytically active areas within the particle. After the conversion process, this structure also allows the lighter molecules to leave the catalyst.

March 2015
Thomas Spatzal, California Institute of Technology, Douglas C. Rees, California Institute of Technology
Nitrogenase Fig 1

As a basic biological building block of amino acids and DNA, nitrogen is necessary for life. Yet most of the Earth’s nitrogen is contained in the atmosphere as dinitrogen, which most organisms are unable to use because they cannot break dinitrogen’s N-N-triple bond. A few microorganisms, however, are able to use an enzyme called nitrogenase to catalyze the transformation of dinitrogen into bioavailable ammonia.

Macromolecular Crystallography
March 2015
Binzhi Li, University of California, Davis, Yayoi Takamura, University of California, Davis

Advanced permanent magnets with low cost and high energy density are important for next-generation technologies, and one promising type of advanced magnet is the exchange spring magnet. This type of nanocomposite comprises two phases of magnetic materials: “hard” magnets, which can remain uniformly magnetized under large fluctuations in magnetic fields, and are often made of rare earth elements, and “soft” magnets, which have a high energy density but their magnetic states can easily be disturbed by small magnetic fields.

X-ray reflectivity, X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy
February 2015
Young-Sang Yu, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Yijin Liu, Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, Jordi Cabana, University of Illinois at Chicago
operando figure

Lithium-ion batteries, the mobile power source for most electronic devices, play an important role in everyday life. In the coming decades, they could play an even greater role, powering electric vehicles or storing electrical energy for the grid – if researchers can find ways to improve them.

In particular, the energy density of current batteries is limited by the capacity of the positive electrode, which in turn is determined by the properties and concentration of its active material. By better understanding this material and its limitations, researchers hope to design the highest capacity electrodes possible.

February 2015
David Singer, Kent State University
Figure 1

When radioactive elements enter the environment – whether through natural processes or an accidental spill – it’s important to understand how to clean them up. This is especially true at the interface between water and minerals, which dominate the surface area of most geological landscapes. 

Recently, researchers came to SSRL to better understand how trace radioactive elements like uranium and strontium come to preferentially enrich materials that have pores with diameters just a few nanometers wide, called mesopores.

February 2015
James J. Lee, Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource
Figure 1

For three decades, scientists have worked to engineer materials that allow electricity to flow without resistance at ambient temperatures. That could make just about everything that runs on electricity more efficient – saving enormous amounts of energy. But current superconductors are far from that dream: they only operate well below minus 135 degrees C. 

A recent study suggests a promising path toward room-temperature superconductors.



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