New machine director wants to give researchers the sharpest tools

New machine director wants to give researchers the sharpest tools

He calls MAX IV Laboratory the most exciting physics project in the world and turned down attractive job offers in the USA and Europe to come to Lund and lead the work on the synchrotron radiation facility’s storage rings. However, it was a close thing, as MAX IV nearly had to do without Pedro Fernandes Tavares – one of the world stars of accelerator physics.

Pedro Fernandes Tavares took an early interest in technology and the natural sciences, and he was only 16 or 17 when he saw his first accelerator in a chemistry book at school. At that time he thought that everything relating to atoms was chemistry, so he started studying to become a chemical engineer at his home university in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.


“Chemistry was interesting, but I soon realised that if you wanted to get down to the basics and find out the fundamentals of how the natural world works and how we are affected by it smallest components, then it had to be physics. I wanted to understand the connections at atomic level and therefore changed direction, from chemistry to atomic physics.”


At the age of 24, Pedro Fernandes Tavares had finished his Master’s degree at the university in Campinas, 100 kilometres north of the major city of Sao Paulo and was tired of both theoretical work and the working methods in the academic world. Going on to take a doctoral degree had no appeal to him at all, despite several good offers both in Brazil and from abroad. He started to look for new challenges and found out that there were well-advanced plans to build a Brazilian synchrotron radiation facility, Laboratório Nacional de Luz Sincrotron (LNLS), in Campinas.

“I applied for a job as an accelerator physicist and went for the interview. When I asked the director if they had funds for their project – and for my salary – he just laughed and said ‘We don’t know, and there are many risks in this project’. I felt immediately that this was where I wanted to be. The contrast with the university world could hardly have been greater. This was about building something from scratch – it was incredibly exciting.”

As part of his work at LNLS, Pedro Fernandes Tavares spent two years on a research project at the CERN accelerator, a European joint venture in Switzerland. His research concerned finding solutions to the problem of electron beam deterioration, which was caused by contact with residual molecules when the beam passed through the vacuum tube. The research was highly applied – this was knowledge required to ensure top class performance at the Brazilian facility.

“CERN is one of the world’s best research environments and the right place to be for those who need to solve advanced and complex physics problems. There are world-leading experts in all kinds of fields and a culture in which people are willing to share their knowledge. My research at CERN resulted in a doctoral thesis in 1994, but above all it provided knowledge and new technology that could be implemented at LNLS, such as equipment that could be used to reduce deterioration of the electron beam.”

One of the most evident common denominators for the world’s major research facilities is uncertainty about financing. In this respect, LNLS was no exception. However, there was also resistance in another area. The group behind the Brazilian synchrotron radiation facility was totally focused on building an open laboratory that could be used by universities, companies and independent research institutes. The resistance that Pedro Fernandes Tavares and his colleagues faced, in addition to the project being seen as far too expensive and complicated, was the belief that no external users would want to use such a facility. That criticism proved to be wrong. The required USD 70 million was raised and users were already queuing up when the machine delivered its first light in 1997. When Pedro left Brazil in 2009, the 100-meter-long synchrotron light ring had 14 beamlines that attracted over 1,300 users annually, including a contingent of Scandinavian researchers. In 2002, Pedro Fernandes Tavares became Machine Director with responsibility for the technical operation and development of LNLS. Seven years later he decided to take a sabbatical – an opportunity afforded in the scientific world to spend a period away from your customary job to conduct research elsewhere.

He moved to Karlsruhe, where work on the new ANKA synchrotron radiation facility was in full swing. The idea was to stay one year, but fate had other plans. Pedro Fernandes Tavares had already come into contact with MAX Lab through its Machine Director Mikael Eriksson, who was a member of the LNLS international Machine Advisory Committee (MAC), and knew that exciting things were happening in Lund. He was particularly interested in the Lund researchers’ ideas on how to build an entirely new generation of synchrotron light rings with a higher capacity at a much lower cost.

Building MAX IV from MAX IV Laboratory on Vimeo.

“Around the year 2000 there were many who thought that the development of storage ring-based synchrotron light sources had reached the end of the road”, explains Pedro Fernandes Tavares. “Up to that point the only way to increase the brilliance of the light beam was to build bigger facilities and it was generally considered that it was impossible to justify the financial investment that would be required – there was talk of rings with a circumference of several kilometres. Then Mikael Eriksson and his colleagues put forward the idea of bending the beam without it deteriorating, using methods such as an inventive arrangement of very strong magnets. With this idea you could reduce the ring’s circumference considerably, which means a far lower cost. At the start there was nobody who really believed in the Lund researchers’ ideas, but when we saw that they were actually thinking about building MAX IV Laboratory using this totally new technology, we realised that it was serious. Now the technology looks set to be used at several facilities in various places around the world.”

In the late autumn of 2009, Pedro happened to look at MAX IV’s website and saw there was a job vacancy – they needed a project leader for the storage rings. It was the final day for applications and he quickly wrote an email explaining that he was interested in the position. Two months later he had forgotten the email, but then he got an answer from MAX IV Laboratory’s Machine Director, Mikael Eriksson. He wanted to meet Pedro for an interview. Pedro arrived in Lund on a cold and windy February day a few months later. This first encounter with the winter in Skåne was quite a shock.

“Outside the railway station the wind was blowing so strongly that I could hardly walk upright and when I asked Mikael if it was always this cold and windy in Lund, he replied that it was usually much worse. But the interview went well. I immediately got a good feeling about the team and just two days later Michael offered me the job. After a long discussion with my wife about the different opportunities on offer, we made a joint decision and moved to Lund in August 2010.”

The move coincided with the first meeting of the Machine Advisory Committee, which was formed for the development of the new synchrotron radiation facility, and it was also in connection with this meeting that funding for the project was finally confirmed. It was a green light for MAX IV Laboratory.

As the project leader for the two storage rings at MAX IV Laboratory, Pedro Fernandes Tavares has had to grapple with extremes that sometimes touch the limits of what the laws of nature allow. Electron beams with energy levels of 3 and 1.8 gigaelectronvolts respectively go round in the rings with mind-boggling precision. The facility has a compact format, is designed to deliver the world’s most brilliant photon beam, but has to be built according to stringent environmental requirements – all this has demanded a large number of technical solutions, many of which have never been tried before. And, to complicate matters further, the components are being developed and built in many different places around the world. The magnets in Uppsala, Vislanda and Copenhagen, the vacuum chambers in Spain and Germany. Experts in different fields have been brought in from universities, companies and institutes in Spain, France, Russia, Switzerland and many other countries. Around 100 people have worked on what Pedro Fernandes Tavares describes as a gigantic integration project.

A small part of the so called Multi-Bend Achromat that is the world leading concept that makes MAX IV unique.

“Naturally, there has been a lot of data to analyse, many technical problems to solve and a seemingly endless number of tests to ensure the various components work together. But my most important role has been getting all these people to work together in a constructive way. I have spent a large part of the past four years travelling.”

It is clear that Pedro Fernandes Tavares has been able to use his language skills extensively in his work. In addition to fluent Swedish, he speaks a further six languages, although he says a couple of these are at a relatively basic level.

It was confirmed in February that Pedro Fernandes Tavares would succeed Mikael Eriksson as the MAX IV Laboratory’s Machine Director and that he would be staying in Lund, despite attractive offers from elsewhere.

“There are several reasons for my decision to stay. One, of course, is that it gives me the chance to get this huge project completed. Another important factor is that we have been able to build it using completely new technology that has overcome previous obstacles and will make it a world-leading facility for many years to come. It will also be a meeting place for the world’s leading materials researchers. But there are also other factors that make Lund and MAX IV Laboratory attractive. There is a rich cultural life and it is close to both the countryside and continental Europe. I also enjoy the informal atmosphere of Lund’s research environments. It’s very different from the quite strict hierarchical systems in other countries. The decision-making process is frequently faster in other countries, but even though it can take longer here using a more democratic process, this is often more than compensated for by knowing that everyone is on board.”

Those who have followed the development of MAX IV Laboratory perhaps have the idea that everything will be wrapped up when the facility starts operating “for real” in the summer of 2016. This perception is not shared by Pedro Fernandes Tavares.

“No, in many ways that is when our work starts for real! Our task is to supply the laboratory’s users with the very sharpest tools for studying materials and processes on a molecular level. This means that we have to be constantly on our toes and do everything we can to assist them and, quite literally, discover new worlds. As an accelerator physicist I have a dual interest – in both the advances that can be made through the microworlds we can make visible and understand, and in the development of accelerators as an area of research in itself – and here there is a lot left to learn.”

He doesn’t agree either with the current view that a synchrotron radiation facility can be the world leader for five years, or perhaps ten at the most, before being inevitably overtaken by other, newer laboratories.

“We are already working on the next generation of synchrotron light and I am quite sure that we will be able to achieve it in the existing MAX IV Laboratory. But we are talking about long development periods – it’s almost 20 years since planning started on the research facility that will start operating in the summer. One condition for making advances is having access to a very good research and experiment environment. And that’s what we have in Lund – the world’s best, actually.”

Story by: Arne Berge

Photo: Madeleine Schoug