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Remote analyses

The LabWeb Project, at the Synchrotron laboratory, allows users to make beamline measurements economically and quickly

Four of the fifteen synchrotron light experimental stations permit remote access over the Internet

Eduardo CesarFour of the fifteen synchrotron light experimental stations permit remote access over the InternetEduardo Cesar

On October 8, 2012, Prof. Bluma Guenther Soares, at the Polymer Mixtures and Conducting Composites Laboratory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), did not need to alter her routine at all in order to perform the analysis of 100 samples of polymers in one of the beamlines, or experimental stations, at the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS) in Campinas, 400 km away in São Paulo State. “At the scheduled date and time, a student and I went on the Internet and, from my office, accessed the equipment in Campinas,” Soares reports of the experience of being the first to do remote research using LabWeb. Someone at LNLS monitors the experiment and the users can see the results in real time on a computer or tablet. “For previous experiments, I had to go to the laboratory and stay awake for 24 hours to prepare the samples and adjust the beamline. I could analyze a maximum of 130 samples, whereas when using remote access I started my experiment with 100 samples at 1:00 p.m., and by 4:00 p.m. all the data had been collected,” says Soares.

“The great advantage of remote research for the user is the reduction in the cost of their research projects,” emphasizes Mateus Borba Cardoso, the LNLS researcher who coordinated the first remote experiments. In addition to carrying out his own research on nanoparticles for biomedical applications, Cardoso also assists laboratory users with their beamline experiments. On the morning of February 24, 2014, for example, he watched from Campinas as two researchers who were in Argentina made their measurements. “Those passing by the line during the experiment see only lights turning on and blinking and motors moving,” says Cardoso about the experiment. With respect to the Argentinean researchers’ expenses related to taking the measurements, he states: “They paid only for the postage.”

“We started with one beamline running remotely and today, after the necessary hardware modifications, we have four lines operating remotely,” says Harry Westfahl Junior, LabWeb Project Coordinator and LNLS Scientific Director. The plan is to have 7 lines operating by May, 2014, and 15 lines by the end of 2014. To carry out the experiments, only an Internet navigator and Internet access are needed. The user can access the beamline controls from a website. The procedure for using the station is the same as for on-site research, with submission of a proposal through the site, followed by approval. Not all studies using a synchrotron beamline—equipment that is used to analyze the atomic and microscopic characteristics of materials—can be done remotely. Only solid samples can be used, for measurements at room temperature, or when a study seeks to analyze the reactions of the material.

If the user chooses to do the study remotely, he or she receives by mail a stand for the samples, which is then sent back. “On the scheduled date, we place the sample holder in the beamline and transfer control of the experimental station to the researcher,” explains Cardoso. Three cameras follow everything done in the beamline. The researchers can move the cameras remotely, see samples, choose when to take measurements and for how long. “They control the whole experiment as if they were right here in the laboratory,” says Cardoso. Currently, from 10% to 15% of the experiments performed on one of the low-angle, X-ray scattering beamlines are done remotely. In 2013, seven were carried out remotely just on this line.

Initially, an open-access Canadian platform called Science Studio was the technology used for LabWeb. “This system is the graphical interface that allows the user to interact with the graphics,” says Westfahl. Control of the beamline is through Epics (Experimental Physics and Industrial Control System), a set of open-source software tools developed by the US Department of Energy together with synchrotron laboratories. “A partnership with the multinational National Instruments do Brasil enabled us to implement unprecedented developments in the use of control with this platform,” says Westfahl. “It’s a new system that will be used by other synchrotrons all over the world.” The LabWeb project was implemented in partnership with the Petrobras Nanotechnology Network, responsible for financing R$3 million of the research, which included everything from technological prospecting to the design and modification of the Canadian platform and hardware changes.

Increasing BeamlineTime Available
Hugo Henrique Slepicka and Márcio Alexandre Barbosa, software engineers, were hired by LNLS to work on the project full-time. “Initially, we studied how the Science Studio platform worked so it could be adapted to the requirements of remote laboratory experiments and we sought to understand the needs of beamline users,” says Slepicka. The system they created uses clicks on the computer, rather than commands, to operate the system remotely. “The chance of error is much smaller than when commands have to be typed,” he says. From the moment when the prepared sample is placed in the light beam and measurements are made, all data is pre-processed and made available to the user. In some beamlines, graphics can be viewed in real time.

In the case of a professor monitoring an experiment being done by a student, the professor can, if necessary, suggest changes in the measurements used. Slepicka emphasizes that remote research, in addition to reducing the cost of projects, helps increase the beamline’s total available time. This is because when a user takes measurements of samples in Campinas, he has to select them and prepare them, and only then take the measurements. “However, in the case of a remote experiment, they are placed in the beamline already prepared and ready to be measured,” he explains. All of the technologies used for the project—such as the development of algorithms to work with the large volumes of data generated by the measurements and their visualization, in addition to storing the information obtained compactly—are non-proprietary. “Other synchrotrons, including the one in Canada, could benefit from what we are doing here,” says Slepicka.