SAXS on a boat?

sailboat during golden hour
Photo by Inge Wallumrød on

It has been a dream of mine to somehow combine my work with the ocean. While private plans are slowly taking shape to get a boat and sail it across an ocean or two as a sabbatical, I would love to be able to put some stopovers in between for lecturing, short research stays and science outreach activities at less well-traveled foreign places and institutes. Space permitting, one could even consider having researchers staying on board during the eco-friendly journey for teaching and mentoring opportunities as well as mini-workshops and small-group code camps in an environment that would encourage focus and deep thought. Floating such an idea on Twitter a year or two ago garnered great interest from a varied group of scientists.

Meanwhile, I’ve now skippered well over 2000 nautical miles (>3700 km) on various sailing yachts, and have a commercial offshore sailing license (nothing too fancy, just the German SSS). The two remaining problems to this plan are financing, as always, and combining it with work. Would it be possible to put an eco-friendly X-ray scattering instrument on board and sail it from place to place, conference to conference, with a changing crew? Let’s dive in a bit deeper:

Firstly, for a normal ocean crossing, a yacht of about 12 to 15 meters would be comfortable enough to sail across, even shorthanded, i.e. with little crew. It does not leave a lot of room for X-ray instrumentation, however, so any work would have to remain purely theoretical or computational in that case. It would fit a passenger or two along a crew of two, and would be rather modest. This is, then, the “safe” option, timely arrival not guaranteed.

Going a little further, this old ship popped up recently, which could be just the thing for putting instrumentation on board, with a little modification: (If anyone wants to help me fund this, please do contact me.)

It’s twice as long as the normal ocean-crossing yacht, needs more crew to handle (besides two skippers at least two crew), and will cost quite a bit more in upkeep so would need decent sponsorship. It comes with some good benefits though: it could easily host five or six fellow researchers, has space for a small scattering instrument, and would have ample deck space for solar panels. It also comes with a crow’s nest, which, as we all know, is essential. So with that sorted, what about the instrument?

Any instrument at sea needs to be compact, very sturdy, and with low-power requirements. While there are X-ray diffraction instruments that would fit the bill such as these for e.g. geological studies, no example exists to my knowledge for X-ray scattering. The X-ray sources should probably be microfocus sources (although I have no idea of their shock resistance) for their low power and stability. The instrument should be a rigid, fixed geometry with multiple, smaller detectors to cover a wide-ish angular range, and USAXS would be a good bonus. Collimation perhaps using scatterless pinholes rather than slit blades, with manual, locking adjustments. The entirety in a solid cage on a lightweight optical table for rigidity and to prevent bumping into it too much.

While the engineering will be an interesting challenge, I don’t think modern technology will be the limiting factor. The true need for a portable instrument is less evident, but I’ve been a big fan of the “build it and they will come” mentality which has served well so far for the MOUSE instrument. Who’s with me?