10 years on at the CLS: keeping up with the times

There are many significant milestones in the history of the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron, starting with the announcement it would be built on the U of S campus to its commissioning, the first detection of beamline light (December 2003) and its various expansions. No matter where you start counting, the light source is getting on in years, so how do you keep a state-of-the-art facility state of the art?

Maintenance and upgrades are a critical consideration for the facility, said Mike McKibben, director of technical support. "State of the art means cutting edge, and if it's a couple of years old, it's no longer state of the art." The CLS has always kept a supply of spare parts on hand, parts identified by vendors as most likely to fail, but the introduction of an enterprise risk management system several years ago has broadened the effort to identify what might go wrong, and when.

McKibben said the system involved gathering information from the people who run the facility about potential problems for the light source, whether they are operational, financial or reputational. "We took all of the suggestions and put them into this process. Then we turned the crank. One of the outcomes that we've identified as a high risk to the facility is key system failures, and we've done a good job of having all of those parts in place."

The catch, of course, is funding. With an infinite amount of money, millions of parts – enough for a whole new synchrotron – could be amassed and stored in a warehouse "but there's a balance you have to find," said McKibben. "You have to weigh the cost of spare parts with the likelihood of failure and your tolerance for risk."

Along with the risk management process is a maintenance management system that moves the CLS from reactive to a more proactive maintenance mode, he said. That system produces a monthly report that ensures ongoing upkeep of the equipment – "change the belt on this, that needs to be lubricated." The next step, he added, will be moving toward a predictive maintenance mode.

Staying state of the art at the CLS also involves adding capacity for science. Originally built with seven beamlines, the facility has been expanded twice and now accommodates 22. There is still a bit of room for more beamlines, he said, "but that space is very precious to us in terms of what science we want to do."

Although no new beamlines are being planned, the CLS is going back to its oldest and doing upgrades to expand the science capabilities. "There is probably about a 10-15-year lifetime before you start looking at upgrading the beamlines and we're at that point now."

In the case of some of its truly unique aspects, the CLS is looking to other light source facilities for cutting-edge developments. McKibben explained that when it opened, the CLS was the only light source in the world using a super-conducting radio frequency cavity, a device that gives electrons a push to replace the energy lost with each lap of the storage ring. "Other facilities around the world have adopted that same technology and now we're relying on some of their experience to help steer us in the right direction for upgrades and enhancements to that system."

A challenge for any maintenance program is keeping users from having to wait for beam time, particularly if the wait is unexpected. The CLS has goals it wants to meet in terms of operational hours "and as you reach those goals, the expectations of the users start to increase," said McKibben. He compared it to using a 10-year-old computer. "You'd be frustrated by how slow it was. It's human nature to expect speed if that's what you're used to. Here, users expect to have beam when they want beam (and) we're having to change some of our methods of doing things to accommodate users."

With climbing user expectations comes a diminishing tolerance for risk, he said, specifically operational risk. One example of how that risk is mitigated involves planned maintenance work. "We don't try to squeeze the work in over two days when there's the potential it might take four. We do it during a time when we know we've got five days, and then we've got three days grace."

A facility like a light source requires, he said, continual upgrade and maintenance but its performance as a system, while not perfect, has been stellar. It was always imagined that researchers from around the world would come to Saskatoon to use the CLS, and they do, thanks in large part to unique and complimentary beamlines. "There are people who have a synchrotron in their backyard but they choose to come here to do their science."

Looking 10 years into the future, McKibben envisions additional beamlines at the CLS along with ancillary facilities like a lecture theatre. "I would also see the area around here having other labs that are working in association with the light source, attracting the synergy with other disciplines."

Ten years on, the basic technology will remain, he said, but upgrades and developments will see new kinds of science that will wow even those who work in the facility every day. McKibben predicted the greatest potential lies with the biomedical beamline.

"It's an imaging beamline and as you walk down the hall you can see the reconstructions that they do of grasshoppers and bones, and it's tangible. You know what you're looking at and you can see a realizable benefit to doing that. That's probably where you hear ‘that's cool' the most.

"There still have to be eureka moments because if you don't have those, it's hard to come to work every day."

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