Taking advantage of proximity to the agricultural sector

by Noelle Chorney

Robert Lamb claims he’s like a moth, drawn to the brightest lights in the world. He has spent his career in universities and using synchrotrons. Most recently he moved last September from Australia where he had been at the University of Melbourne and the founding CEO of the Australian Synchrotron, to run the Canadian Light Source (CLS).

He was instantly struck by the unique location of the CLS. “You don’t see a light source down the road from a field of canola anywhere else in the world. It is a great opportunity to have one of the world’s most complex scientific tools next to an industry that has existed since the dawn of civilization.”

The opportunities are endless, especially considering the high volume production in this province. “When you’re dealing with millions of bushels of grain, even a small improvement can result in millions of dollars in revenue.”

Heading into its 10th year of operations, the CLS is undergoing a re-organization and a refocusing of priorities. They are focusing on three theme areas: 
• bio- and life sciences, 
• materials and chemistry, and 
• earth and the environment. 

Lamb says, “Many light sources package their services around the technologies, but we are packaging ours around the science.” 

There are dozens of untapped opportunities for agricultural research in each of the theme areas, from plant development to machinery engineering to soil analysis. “The light source is an excellent tool for looking at soil and plants and observing the interactions between them,” he says.

CLS beamlines can image whole living tissue, revealing molecular level interactions in real time. “You can see how roots extract certain elements from the soil. You can see how compounds are concentrated in a plant’s leaves during a drought, and then diluted again when the drought ends.”

Live animals have also been imaged. “We manage the exposure that live animals undergo. We have had situations where we have taken a live image of a dog with prostate cancer (a good model for humans), and the dog has walked away from the process.”

There is no end to the potential for imaging live animals. “There are three common questions that we ask in analysis: What is it? Where is it? And, how much is there? With the light source, you can answer all three questions. We have so much control over the light that we can see not only bones, but also organs and tissue.”

The CLS is currently overbooked by 60-100 percent, so getting “beam time” can be a challenge. The focus on three theme areas will ensure that local research projects related to agriculture and mining gain more access. There are also plans to build support labs and expand beamlines.

Businesses, big or small, looking to solve problems pay a fee, but there are government support programs to help offset costs. Lamb says the CLS will work with small companies to get their projects to work. "We work hard to give an answer, not just data. We have a special breed of scientists here that can talk to people. No matter how small your organization, if you have a problem and you think the CLS might be able to help, just ask.”

“The CLS is already one of the most successful industrial light sources in the world, because from the beginning our teams of scientists have made it their focus to solve problems in industry. We’re well-known around the world; now it’s time to take full advantage of our location and benefit our local industries further.”


Watch Robert Lamb's ABIC 2014 presentation: Shining a Bright Light on Agricultural BioSciences (starts at 54:00)


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