How to build an ARC

How to build an ARC

The University of Ottawa’s new Advanced Research Complex is a powerhouse of photonics and geosciences research
September 30, 2014

The Advanced Research Complex (ARC) is a five-storey, customized building on the University of Ottawa campus housing some of the world’s most leading-edge equipment for photonics and geoscience research.

READ: Putting science on display

The Advanced Research Complex offers a new model of research in photonics and geoscience by gathering scientists from different disciplines under one roof.

The building was designed with stability in mind; the labs needed to withstand any vibrations that may affect the accuracy of sensitive lasers during photonics experiments or ion beams in geoscience instruments. To accommodate this need, the facility was built on a surface supported by concrete slabs that are separated from the rest of the building for added steadiness. If the building shakes, the slabs stay still.

READ: Shared dreams and laser beams

Internationally acclaimed physicist Paul Corkum has long promoted Ottawa as a rising world capital of photonics. As a hub of collaborative research, the Advanced Research Complex is an important new commitment to turning that vision into reality.

READ: Getting a good vibe

The slightest movement can ruin a photonics experiment. For Robert Boyd and his team, working in new labs designed to dampen vibration will make their job a whole lot easier.

From the outside of the building, passersby can peer through the glass and see ARC’s centrepiece: the André E. Lalonde Lab, featuring Canada’s only accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS). This 44-tonne state-of-the-art machine is capable of measuring radioisotopes at trace concentrations in anything from human tissues to soil samples. The university will use this infrastructure to advance research in energy, health and the environment.

READ: No small feat

Jack Cornett studies tiny traces of rare atoms to unlock mysteries of environmental health.

It took a gruelling seven months to transport the pieces of the AMS to Ottawa: one 18-tonne magnet had to be moved from a basement laboratory at the University of Toronto and shipped by truck along Ontario’s Highway 401; other delicate parts arrived by ship and plane from the Netherlands. But putting it together using the facility’s built-in crane has been an exciting prospect for University of Ottawa researchers and executives. The first shipment arrived last December. For researcher Ian Clark, it was like Christmas morning.

One of the perks of an AMS is the level of precision with which it measures radiocarbon, a method researchers use to date items such as ancient artifacts and geological features. Because the AMS can detect and analyze radioisotopes at very low concentrations in milligram-size samples, researchers are able to determine ages with very little material.

READ: Atomic tour de force

Geologist Ian Clark and his research team will use the colossal centrepiece of the Advanced Research Complex — an accelerator mass spectrometer — to study radioactive contaminants, one atom at a time

Earth sciences professor Ian Clark and his colleagues use the AMS to measure the concentration of a trace isotope called radiocarbon or carbon-14 in earth and water samples to identify the source and fate of environmental contaminants and to help improve waste management methods.

LISTEN: Tracing contaminants in the earth

Ian Clark, professor of Earth sciences at the University of Ottawa, explains how radiocarbon dating using an accelerator mass spectrometer can help resolve significant issues surrounding contaminated environments. (This podcast is only available in English.)

Accelerator mass spectrometry is the most precise and efficient way of radiocarbon dating. What makes an AMS stand out from other dating methods is its ability to separate radioisotopes from other elements with the same mass. When dating soil samples, for example, a traditional mass spectrometer cannot distinguish between carbon-14 and nitrogen-14, because these two isotopes seem virtually identical, like trying to differentiate salt from sugar using only your eyes. Since an essential part of radiocarbon dating involves measuring concentrations of carbon-14, it is imperative that other atoms of the same mass do not contaminate these measurements.

WATCH: How the accelerator mass spectrometer works

What makes an accelerator mass spectrometer capable of analyzing a trace isotope like radiocarbon, which is present in the environment at one-million-millionth the concentration of regular carbon atoms? How is it able to distinguish between two atoms that have virtually identical mass? Ian Clark, professor of Earth sciences at the University of Ottawa explains how it works in this animated video.

MAIN IMAGE: Exterior view of the University of Ottawa’s Advanced Research Complex. Credit: COLE+Associates Architects Inc.