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Beamtime abroad during a pandemic.

A beamtime at a Synchrotron is always special – in the middle of a pandemic even more.

Before the coronavirus pandemic started, we travelled several times to the Synchrotron SOLEIL near Paris to get beamtime access. At SOLEIL we make use of the beamline AILES (Advanced Infrared Line Exploited for Spectroscopy) in the THz range to investigate our molecular systems. It’s usually a lot of work, but I always love to go there because it is a really cool atmosphere with so many possibilities and so many different people to meet. In 2020 we had a beamtime scheduled in April, which we couldn’t use because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but finally in March this year it was possible again! Of course it was something completely different.

Travelling not as easy as before

In a normal year, we would have taken the train from Bochum to Paris but this felt too dangerous, especially since Paris was one of the biggest coronavirus hotspots in Europe at that time. So, the driver service of RUB drove us there. We had to bring with us a whole folder of documents to be allowed to enter Belgium and then France, together with a negative coronavirus test, which we did two days before and which was also my very first.

Being excited and unsure about traveling felt super awkward to me, because moving around the EU has always been normal and easy. Now, as the French police officers were checking everyone at the border, we were just hoping that we wouldn’t face any problems. Fortunately, everything went fine, and we safely arrived SOLEIL. 

After being closed for maintenance during the French lockdown, the Synchrotron was finally scheduled for re-opening the next day, so on that Sunday evening we were the first and only ones since weeks in the guesthouse and the canteen was waiting just for us. The first evening is always a nice and relaxing one, which we all spend together, before starting our shifts the next day. This time, it was a bit sad, but we made the best out of it and talked a lot in the outside, wearing masks and keeping the distance.

But science goes on

The day after our arrival, we started the measurements. Our goal was to explore how the water molecules that surround an Ion react, when the Ion is attracted by the charge of an electrode. The water molecules of the solvation shell in the direction of the electrode have to move aside so that the Ion can meet the electrode and charge transfer can happen. Understanding how the water molecules move and interact with other molecules could lead to improved battery technology. 

During our beamtime, we were able to obtain THz spectra from the double layer of NaCl solutions to reproduce the results of the last measurements. We also recorded new spectra from a KCl solution, where we changed the applied current and looked for the change of the water molecules and ions close to the electrode. One series of these measurements took us about 10 hours, exactly the same like before the coronavirus. 

That was the only constant with the pre-pandemic time. As we entered the AILES common room, where we used to work, hang around, solve problems and drink coffee even when it was not our shift, the limitations and the number of people allowed remembered us about the situation. Also, many of the staff working there weren’t stopping by, like they did before. So a lot of exchange was lost.

Life out of the synchrotron was, as expected, also different. Before the pandemic, we did a lot of walks in our free time because the landscape around Soleil is really beautiful, and the small village close by has a lot of nice old houses and small streets to explore. Moreover, we usually took the bus to Massy Palaiseau, the nearest city with a supermarket. The Canteen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, but when you have two-night shifts in a row, you want your meals at different times than usual. This time we were asked not to go out if not necessary. Hence, in eight days we did just two tours by car so that everyone of us had the chance to buy some groceries. Apart from that we didn’t leave Soleil. 

After eight days in Soleil our driver from RUB picked us up on Monday at lunchtime. Some of us were still very tired because we always use the last bit of beam time until it is shut off on Monday mornings. In the end we were back at RUB at around 6 pm. The next day we met again for a coronavirus quick-test and we were happy to be all negative. 

It was a different story than the previous occasions at SOLEIL, but I still liked it and I was grateful to have this opportunity in such a difficult time.

 

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About the author

 

 

Katja Mauelshagen earned her PhD from Ruhr-University Bochum in April 2021 under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Martina Havenith. She explored water under super critical conditions and built a special measurement cell for Terahertz spectroscopy to meet the extraordinary demands in temperature and pressure.

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