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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Small Science

Air Date: Week of

Researchers come from all over the world to a one-of-a-kind facility called the ISIS Center in the United Kingdom. There they use special equipment, such as super microscopes and proton accelerators, to study materials at the atomic level. Deutsche Welle Radio's Naomi Fowler gets a tour by a scientist who looks at the amazing properties of spider silk.


YOUNG: It’s Living On Earth, I’m Jeff Young. It’s five times stronger than steel. It can absorb three times more energy than a bulletproof vest. It’s spider silk. How do spiders do it? Scientists at the ISIS facility near Oxford, in the United Kingdom, are using cutting edge technology to unravel the mysteries in a spider’s web and many other natural materials. The heart of the center is a proton accelerator that produces a beam of exotic subatomic particles like muons. Deutsche Welle Radio’s Naomi Fowler visited ISIS with researchers working to strengthen our understanding of some of nature’s strongest stuff.

FOWLER: The University of Oxford’s Dr. Chris Holland has spent years studying how spiders and silk worms spin silk.

HOLLAND: It is an absolutely fascinating material - it’s something that has captivated man for thousands of years. It’s the world’s oldest commercial fiber, superior toughness and strength. That’s particularly pertinent to us now because we’re trying to look at how we can improve our own materials. Not only to increase the quality of them but also to try and reduce their impact in the environment in terms of their carbon footprint and their costs – their energetic costs in producing them. Well, I suggest we head off to the experimental hall and we’ll see what we can find.


FOWLER: Over 2,000 scientists come here to ISIS at the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory to use neutrons and muons for experiments in physics, chemistry, material science, geology, engineering, and biology. Some call it small science research.


FOWLER: It’s a bit like a big ship.

BOLE: It does look a bit like a big ship, I guess, or a concert hall or a cathedral, and at night time, it’s kind of magical there’s all sort of diffuse light and quiet silence that’s not here in the daytime.

FOWLER: Dr. Martin Bole’s showing me around this vast facility. Scientists have to apply for time slots to do their experiments here. They’re selected by peer review and generate 400 to 500 research papers a year.

BOLE: What we do is we fire a high-energy particle beam at a target. There are three parts: there is an accelerator at the back here, which is kind of the powerhouse of the research center; and then there are two experimental areas called target stations.

FOWLER: These pulsed beams of neutrons and muons enable the structure and dynamics of condensed matter to be probed on a microscopic scale, ranging from the subatomic to the macromolecular. Dr. Holland.

HOLLAND: There are some things that are almost just too small to see, they’re invisible. So we have to start using light at wavelengths and ranges that we actually can’t see with our own eyes, and using that interaction between the light and the features of interest, we can start to get an idea on almost an atomic – on an atomic scale of what happens when silk is flowed. It’s looking at these kind of what we call non-Newtonian materials, non-Newtonian fluids, where they don’t behave in a linear way.

FOWLER: Are you able to sort of give me some details on what you’ve discovered so far?

HOLLAND: If you actually think about a spider, it doesn’t just pull silk constantly out of its spinnerets; it’s not all reeled up like a fire hose. It’s actually stored in these specialized organs called silk glands, and it’s stored as a protein jelly, yet almost at a moment’s notice the silk will travel down this elongated tapering duct, this silk gland, and exit as a fiber. So, it goes from this stored gel to one of the best-known biopolymers, if not one of the best-known polymers in terms of its toughness known to man. Within seconds, in terms of our production of polymers ourselves and production of our own materials, this is absolutely key.


HOLLAND: The beam passes through here and out to the detectors, which are down there at the back. So the neutrons come in, scatter off the atoms in the material and then get collected, so….

FOWLER: Back in target station one, Dr. Bole’s showing me how recent experiments here using similar techniques enabled a breakthrough in understanding how the surface lining the lungs of premature babies works.

BOLE: All of us have a lining of liquid in our lungs and it helps us to breath. It allows oxygen and carbon dioxide to pass back and forth through it. In premature babies, this lining doesn’t seem to work in the same way as in fully mature adults, and so we were able to simulate the lining under different breathing forces and what we discovered is that one of the molecules in the mix gets pushed out into a separate layer, so it’s actually chemically changing. And so, this explains why it has trouble breathing and has to be kept in incubator. This discovery actually gives a clue to medical and pharmaceutical companies and researchers as to how this can be treated in the future, and maybe, you know, even prevented.

[WHIRRING BACKROUND NOISE; BOLE SAYING “I think we should go back down…”]

BOLE: Doing experiments at ISIS, great fun. I mean, this really is. You walk into the place and you feel like this is kind of the frontier of scientific research.

FOWLER: Dr. Holland.

HOLLAND: We’re able to fire neutrons at the silk protein dope, and this is really kind of a big next step of science is to relate protein structure to function, and this is exactly what we’re looking at now. Nature’s had obviously hundreds of millions of years of evolution and natural selection to try and get the most optimum design of its materials. Now we can start adapting our own material technologies to actually understand how we can improve our own and make it a lot more like nature’s way.

FOWLER: For the team of support scientists here life’s never dull. Dr. Bole again.

BOLE: Recently we had samurai swords. Japanese steelmakers produce some of the best steel in the world ever. Obviously, you’ve got quite valuable swords in collection now and people are interested to discover how they were made. So, when you manufacture objects usually they contain internal stresses and strains and we can pick that up by measuring the atomic separations across the material and so that way we can build up stress maps inside objects you can’t do any other way. And over here, we’ve got a piece of airplane. I’ll bring it over here. Early on in the development of the latest Airbus aircraft, this was brought here and many others like it. So, we lower them into the beam line and we scan the neutron beam across it, so that gives us valuable data sort of early on in the process.

FOWLER: The new second target station here is now fully operational. Scientists will be able to explore even further into the areas of soft matter, advanced materials, and bioscience. This is Naomi Fowler at the ISIS facility in Oxfordshire.

YOUNG: Our piece on small science research comes to us courtesy of Deutsche Welle Radio.



ISIS – a world center for neutrons and muons

Dr. Chris Holland, University of Oxford

Deutsche Welle Radio's Spectrum


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