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Journal logoJOURNAL OF
ISSN: 1600-5775

Blu-Ice and the Distributed Control System: software for data acquisition and instrument control at macromolecular crystallography beamlines

aStanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, 2575 Sand Hill Road, MS 69, Menlo Park, CA 94025, USA, and bLaboratory of Molecular Biophysics, Rex Richards Building, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3QU, UK
*Correspondence e-mail:

(Received 5 July 2002; accepted 22 August 2002)

The Blu-Ice and Distributed Control System (DCS) software packages were developed to provide unified control over the disparate hardware resources available at a macromolecular crystallography beamline. Blu-Ice is a user interface that provides scientific experimenters and beamline support staff with intuitive graphical tools for collecting diffraction data and configuring beamlines for experiments. Blu-Ice communicates with the hardware at a beamline via DCS, an instrument-control and data-acquisition package designed to integrate hardware resources in a highly heterogeneous networked computing environment. Together, Blu-Ice and DCS provide a flexible platform for increasing the ease of use, the level of automation and the remote accessibility of beamlines. Blu-Ice and DCS are currently installed on four Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory crystallographic beamlines and are being implemented at sister light sources.

1. Introduction

The increasing demand for macromolecular crystallography beamline capacity at synchrotron light sources requires that the utilization of these resources be maximized (Mitchell et al., 1999[Mitchell, E., Kuhn, P. & Garman, E. (1999). Structure, 7, 111-121.]). Current approaches to improving efficiency include the development of software for enabling turnkey operation (Skinner & Sweet, 1998[Skinner, J. M. & Sweet, R. M. (1998). Acta Cryst. D54, 718-725.]), increasing automation (Abola et al., 2000[Abola, E., Kuhn, P., Earnest, T. & Stevens, R. C. (2000). Nat. Struct. Biol. 7, 973-977.]) and providing remote access (Chiu et al., 2002[Chiu, H.-J., McPhillips, T., McPhillips, S., Sharp, K., Eriksson, T., Sauter, N., Soltis, M. & Kuhn, P. (2002). Networked Learning, pp. 128-134. NAISO Academic Press.]). A significant hurdle to developing such software is the heterogeneity of the computing and instrument-control infrastructure associated with the beamline. For example, beamline 9-2 at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL), which was the original test bed for Blu-Ice and the Distributed Control System (DCS), comprises over 50 motors associated with the beamline optics and experimental apparatus, numerous attenuation and elemental foils, three ion chambers, an X-ray fluorescence detector, a multichannel analyzer, and a fast-readout large-area CCD detector. Owing to distinct operating constraints of the individual instruments, the low-level software controlling this hardware is not executed on a single computer; rather, a total of six computers running five different operating systems are currently required at this beamline. Thus, a comprehensive software approach is needed to unify the control over hardware resources scattered across a heterogeneous network of computer systems. The Blu-Ice and DCS software packages solve this problem and provide an effective architecture for developing intuitive graphical user interfaces, automating beamlines and enabling remote beamline operation.

2. Blu-Ice

Blu-Ice is a graphical user interface that provides beamline experimenters and support staff with unified control over all instrumentation at a particular beamline. Blu-Ice allows researchers to efficiently configure a beamline for their experiment, determine optimal data-collection parameters and carry out the data collection itself. It also enables support staff to operate and configure all the software-controlled elements of a beamline. Blu-Ice hides the underlying complexity of the beamline instrumentation and places the interfaces to key automation features within a single intuitive graphical environment. Blu-Ice also provides collaborative and remote-access capabilities that allow multiple users to run their own instances (independent executions) of Blu-Ice to view a single beamline from either local or remote locations. Experimenters run multiple instances of Blu-Ice in order to work together over the network and control data-collection experiments from offsite. Support staff run Blu-Ice from local and home offices to provide assistance to users and troubleshoot problems remotely.

Blu-Ice runs within a single window on the workstation desktop (Fig. 1[link]). Graphical widgets common to all Blu-Ice tasks are located in the menu bar at the top or in the status bar at the bottom of the Blu-Ice window. The status bar indicates the current status of the beamline including the energy of the X-ray beam, the state of the high-speed shutter and the activity of the detector. A scrolling log window displays a time-stamped record of all operations carried out on the beamline since that instance of Blu-Ice was started. Interfaces for carrying out distinct experimental or beamline control tasks are divided among the tabs of a notebook-style widget located between the menu bar and the log window. These specialized interfaces are described below.

[Figure 1]
Figure 1
The Blu-Ice graphical user interface. The Hutch tab is shown.

2.1. Hutch tab

The Hutch tab provides the experimental user with views of the most relevant beamline hardware and allows the user to configure the beamline for an experiment (Fig. 1[link]). The names of hardware devices and their current positions are arranged around still photographs, drawings or animated cartoons of the beam-conditioning system, the goniometer and the detector, so that users may easily associate the device names with the actual instruments they see in the experimental hutch. Drop-down menus for each moveable device provide suggested positions spanning the allowable range of motion. The user can specify the positions of the goniometer axes, the position of the detector, the distance between the sample and beam stop, the beam energy, the beam size, and the percent beam attenuation in this fashion. Entering new values for one or more device positions and pressing the `Start' button begins the movement of the devices to the new positions.

The Hutch tab indicates the current status of these devices on all instances of Blu-Ice associated with the particular beamline. The names of moving devices are highlighted and the positions of the moving devices are updated in real time. The X-ray beam is indicated graphically when the shutter is open.

The resolution predictor graphically indicates the position of the direct beam and the d-spacing of diffraction spots expected on different parts of the detector face. The resolution predictor updates dynamically as the detector position and beam energy devices change in value. This update also occurs as the user types trial values into the device-position windows, allowing the user to visualize the effect of changing these parameters without moving any motors. Conversely, the user may click on the resolution predictor to indicate the desired position of the direct beam with respect to the detector; new values for the horizontal and vertical detector positions are entered automatically into the corresponding entry boxes.

A small tabbed interface allows one of two video streams to be selected. The first video stream shows a live image of the sample on the goniometer and provides a click-to-center system; clicking on the image of the sample causes the clicked point to move to the rotation center of the goniometer. Buttons are provided for rotating the goniometer φ axis, for changing the sample camera-zoom level and for fine positioning of the sample. The second video stream presents a view from a pan-tilt-zoom camera mounted in the experimental hutch. Buttons are provided to move the camera to predefined orientations. These video streams greatly simplify the operation of the beamline from outside the hutch, allow the beamline to be operated safely from remote locations and enable remote observers to watch the motion of the instrumentation during an experiment.

2.2. Collect tab

The Collect tab is used to specify, control and monitor single-wavelength and multiwavelength diffraction data-collection experiments. At the right side of the window is a tabbed notebook containing up to 16 individual run definitions. A run is a sequence of exposures taken on a single sample with varying exposure settings. For each run, the user may specify parameters that apply to all images in the run including a prefix from which image file names will be generated, a directory in which to store the images, the detector readout mode, the detector distance and the axis of the κ goniometer to rotate during an exposure (either φ or ω). Additional parameters specify the sequence of images to be collected, including the starting and ending rotation axis positions and the corresponding frame numbers; the rotational angle spanned by each exposure; and the requested exposure time for each exposure. The user may specify up to five different energies at which to collect each frame of data. When using the φ axis, the user may request that the inverse-beam equivalent of each exposure (an exposure starting 180° away) be collected as well. A final parameter specifies the size of the wedge of data to be collected between energy changes and switches between the two halves of an inverse-beam experiment.

The central portion of the Collect tab provides widgets for controlling the progress of the experiment. Pressing the `Start' button initiates data collection on the currently selected run tab. Pressing `Pause' while data collection is in progress stops data collection after completion of the current image. Data collection may be resumed at the next frame of a paused run simply by pressing `Start'. A run-sequence preview window lists the exposures defined by the currently selected run in the order in which the system will collect them. The name of the image file, the starting φ or ω angle, and the energy corresponding to each image are displayed. The next image to be collected is highlighted. Double-clicking on a different image causes the system to jump to that point in the run, either skipping forward or backward in the sequence. The run sequence updates dynamically as the user modifies run definitions, providing rapid feedback about how the run-definition parameters affect the sequence. A dose-mode checkbox allows the user to indicate whether exposure times should be corrected dynamically for variations in beam intensity.

The left side of the Collect tab is occupied by a view of the last collected diffraction image. The user may adjust the centering, zoom level and contrast level of the image. Overloaded pixels are indicated graphically. At high zoom levels the pixel values are displayed.

2.3. Scan tab

The Scan tab allows the user to perform X-ray fluorescence scans of samples mounted on the goniometer. A two-tabbed notebook occupies the right side of the window. The first tab displays a periodic table that allows the user to select any of the X-ray absorption edges accessible at the beamline. Clicking on one of the edges automatically generates optimal experimental parameters for the scan. A fluorescence scan of the sample may then be performed by pressing the `Start Scan' button.

Blu-Ice automatically runs a modified version of the program Chooch (Evans & Pettifer, 2001[Evans, G. & Pettifer, R. F. (2001). J. Appl. Cryst. 34, 82-86.]) on newly collected fluorescence data and displays the resulting f′ and f′′ curves. Based on these curves, Blu-Ice automatically selects three energies for a multi-wavelength anomalous diffraction (MAD) experiment: the inflection point of the absorption edge, the peak of the absorption edge and a remote energy (Hendrickson, 1991[Hendrickson, W. A. (1991). Science, 254, 51-58.]). These three energies are displayed below the plot and may be adjusted by dragging cursors on the plot. They may then be loaded into a run definition on the Collect tab with a single button click.

2.4. Setup tab

The Setup tab, accessible only to beamline support staff, provides a more comprehensive version of the Hutch tab. It presents an integrated view of all the instrumentation at the beamline and enables beamline scientists to efficiently commission, configure and troubleshoot the beamline. Cartoons of the beamline components allow the staff to manipulate beamline hardware elements such as monochromators, slits and goniometers without needing to remember numerous motor names, sign conventions and relative orientations of devices. Floating windows within the Setup tab allow multiple devices to be viewed. Motor-configuration parameters such as speeds, accelerations, scale factors and software limits, as well as other beamline hardware parameters, may be viewed or modified within the Setup tab. Both one- and two-dimensional scans of motor position versus ion-chamber readings may be performed. Finally, a command line allows all beamline control operations to be performed via typed commands or scripts written in the Tcl language. Such scripts greatly simplify troubleshooting of hardware.

3. Distributed Control System (DCS)

The capabilities of Blu-Ice depend heavily on the underlying DCS package. DCS is an instrument-control and data-acquisition system designed for highly heterogeneous networked computing environments. DCS uses a simple message-passing protocol for communication between low-level hardware control systems and graphical user interfaces. The DCS protocol is easy to port to any network-capable computing platform, including recent operating systems such as Linux and Microsoft Windows, legacy platforms such as OpenVMS, and even embedded systems with no operating-system support at all. Thus, DCS allows all hardware resources at a beamline to be placed under the control of a single control system, regardless of the computing platforms associated with those resources. Furthermore, DCS provides server-side scripting capability for implementing complex procedures spanning all of the hardware resources at a beamline. DCS is consequently a powerful platform for implementing sophisticated beamline automation features.

3.1. DCS architecture

DCS is characterized by a three-tier message-passing architecture (Fig. 2[link]). The top tier of DCS consists of graphical user interfaces. Interactive tools for carrying out experiments and otherwise operating the beamline are implemented at this level. For the remainder of this paper, it will be assumed that the graphical user interface to DCS is Blu-Ice and that beamlines using DCS are dedicated to macromolecular crystallography. In principle, however, a wide variety of user interfaces could be developed for use with DCS on beamlines designed for other disciplines.

[Figure 2]
Figure 2
The three-tiered architecture of DCS as currently implemented at SSRL beamline 9-2. The instances of Blu-Ice shown are examples. Not all DHS programs are shown. Hardware supported natively include the ADSC Q4 and Q315 CCD systems; the Mar Research mar345 imaging-plate system; the Canberra DSA-2000 multichannel analyzer; and the Galil DMC-1000 and DMC-2100 series motion controllers. CAMAC modules supported via the ICS control system (George, 2000[George, M. J. (2000). J. Synchrotron Rad. 7, 283-286.]) include the DSP E500 motion controller, the DSP RTC018 real-time clock, the Kinetic Systems 3610 hex scalar, the Joerger D/A16 analog output module and the Joerger QOR quad output register.

The bottom tier of the DCS architecture is composed of DCS hardware server (DHS) programs. A DHS program encapsulates low-level control of one or more physical devices such as motors, shutters, detectors etc. DHS programs are typically run on computers dedicated to hardware control. These computers are in turn located on a dedicated network isolated from the public network at the light source.

The central tier contains the DCS server, DCSS. One instance of DCSS runs at a particular beamline, routing requests from Blu-Ice to the appropriate hardware servers and broadcasting replies from the hardware servers back to Blu-Ice. DCSS is normally run on a multi-homed machine with network addresses on both the public network where Blu-Ice is run and the hardware-control network where DHS programs are executed.

3.2. DCS messaging protocol

All communication between the programs in the DCS architecture uses a message-passing protocol that runs on top of TCP/IP. Each DCS message consists of a variable-length text payload, a variable-length binary payload and a fixed-length ASCII header that lists the lengths of the payload sections. The binary payload is currently used only for passing authentication information between Blu-Ice and DCSS. All other communication in DCS uses the text portion of the DCS messages exclusively.

The text payload of each DCS message consists of a string composed of white-space-separated tokens. The first token in each message is the command; all remaining tokens are arguments to the command. For example, the following is a command from Blu-Ice to DCSS requesting that the motor table_vert_1 be moved to the absolute position of 10.0 mm:

gtos_start_motor_move table_vert_1 10.0.

The DCS protocol is completely asynchronous (i.e. not strict client/server). This asynchronous message-passing architecture allows for simultaneous operation of any number of different devices at the beamline. Any number of different motor moves may be started independently without having to wait for previous moves to complete and without needing to define aggregates of devices that move together. For example, users of Blu-Ice may start to move the detector positioner and then begin centering a crystal on the motorized sample stage while the detector is still moving. Similarly, any number of distinct automation tasks may be performed simultaneously.

The DCS protocol eliminates the need for polling devices from within Blu-Ice. A DCS hardware server is responsible for reporting autonomously when a motor motion or other operation is complete. An instance of Blu-Ice need only wait for the completion message to arrive. Similarly, hardware servers provide updates of motor positions several times a second whenever motors are moving. All instances of Blu-Ice are able to display the current positions of all motors simply by processing all incoming motor-status messages as they arrive and updating the graphical user interfaces accordingly.

3.3. Distributed hardware servers (DHS)

Any program that supports the DCS messaging protocol can act as a hardware server in a beamline controlled by DCS. A DHS program works as a protocol translator. The generic DCS messages are translated by a DHS into the control protocol specific to a particular type of device. This allows Blu-Ice, DCSS and the DCS protocol to remain entirely generic. All hardware-specific code is encapsulated within the hardware server dedicated to a particular device. A typical beamline will run several DHS programs on different computers, and those computers may run different operating systems. This allows operating-system-specific device libraries to be exploited by a DHS. A DHS may also wrap another control system. For example, more than half of the motors at each SSRL beamline are controlled at a low level by the standard SSRL control system, ICS (George, 2000[George, M. J. (2000). J. Synchrotron Rad. 7, 283-286.]). A DHS is used to wrap ICS so that these devices may be controlled via the DCS protocol. This type of DHS allows Blu-Ice to seamlessly integrate multiple low-level control systems at the same beamline. Furthermore, this approach allows beamline developers to deploy Blu-Ice rapidly on beamlines with different hardware systems than those used at SSRL, as long as some basic control system is already in place at those beamlines.

3.4. DCS server (DCSS)

The DCS server is the central component of DCS and provides a number of critical services. First, DCSS stores the state of the beamline, including the positions of all motors. Second, DCSS is a message router, facilitating controlled communication between instances of Blu-Ice and the hardware servers. DCSS examines incoming messages from Blu-Ice and forwards messages that refer to particular devices to the appropriate hardware servers. Conversely, responses from hardware servers are forwarded by DCSS to all instances of Blu-Ice. In this way, DCSS provides all graphical user interfaces with the same status information, allowing them to remain synchronized at all times.

By controlling the flow of instructions to the hardware servers, DCSS prevents damage to the beamline hardware due to conflicting instructions from different instances of Blu-Ice. DCSS allows only one Blu-Ice instance to control the beamline hardware at one time. This instance is referred to as the active client. All other instances of Blu-Ice, the passive clients, may monitor all beamline operations and use passive features such as the resolution predictor, but they cannot issue commands to control the beamline without first becoming the active client. Thus, two users of Blu-Ice can never inadvertently request the control system to perform contradictory operations.

DCSS also enforces authentication of users of Blu-Ice and uses an access-control list to determine which users are allowed to perform what operations. A connecting Blu-Ice instance must respond correctly to a challenge sent by DCSS before being allowed to access the beamline. At SSRL, the challenge–response sequence is based on a per-user private key known to both DCSS and Blu-Ice. This allows users of Blu-Ice to authenticate automatically without typing in a password. The access-control list restricts different users to distinct levels of access to the beamline hardware. At the lowest level of access, a Blu-Ice user is able to monitor operations at the beamline but cannot become the active client or affect the beamline in any way. At the highest level, all devices can be operated and configured.

These features of DCSS greatly simplify the implementation of DHS programs. A designer of a DHS program does not need to take into account the existence of multiple user interfaces, active and passive clients, security and privilege issues, or the nature and activity of other DHS programs at the same beamline. Each DHS must simply respond to a single coherent stream of instructions that are guaranteed to be safe to carry out. Similarly, DCSS hides the nature and location of the various DCS hardware servers from the user-interface tier, allowing Blu-Ice to view and make use of a uniform pool of hardware resources at the beamline.

3.5. Scripting engine

A fully automated, efficient and optimized MAD experiment requires the sequenced and synchronized operation of a large number of devices. Differences between beamlines require that the procedures that control diffraction data collection, automatic beam optimization, fluorescence scans etc. be easy to design, understand, customize and test. DCS provides a powerful server-side scripting interface, the scripting engine, for implementing such beamline automation procedures.

The scripting engine is implemented as a Tcl interpreter executing within the process context of DCSS. Locating the interpreter at this level allows scripts to access all hardware resources at a beamline uniformly. It also allows these procedures to execute independently of any graphical user interface. Users may close all copies of Blu-Ice after starting a data collection and the scripting engine will complete the entire experiment.

Two types of scripts may be defined and executed within the scripting engine: scripted devices and scripted operations. Both types of scripts are written in the Tcl scripting language and may be added to the system or modified without recompiling any part of DCS. A scripted device is a virtual motor that may be composed of any number of real motors or other virtual motors. A scripted device may be moved like a real motor from Blu-Ice or from other scripts. Simple examples of scripted devices on SSRL beamlines are the table_vert and table_pitch devices, both of which move the real motors table_vert_1 and table_vert_2 according to equations included within the scripts. Scripted devices may be nested indefinitely.

A scripted operation is a more general construct that allows beamline automation procedures to be implemented. For example, the procedure to automatically maximize the intensity of the beam by adjusting the table position on an SSRL beamline is implemented as a scripted operation. As such, it can be initiated from Blu-Ice or from within other scripted operations and scripted devices. In particular, the scripted operation that performs data collection also executes this beam-optimization script periodically to compensate for beam motion that may occur.

Multiple scripted devices and operations may run simultaneously, with scripts automatically and safely yielding control to each other when waiting for asynchronous events such as completion of motor moves or other operations. Concurrency in the scripting engine is based on an event model rather than a more complex multi-threading model (Ousterhout, 1998[Ousterhout, J. K. (1998). IEEE Comput. 31, 23-20.]). DCS script writers may largely ignore the complexities associated with thread-based concurrent programming, such as the need to protect shared data and avoid deadlock. Consequently, beamline scientists with minimal software-development experience may describe the behavior of the beamline in simple linear scripts that are easy to write, debug and understand. Example scripts that illustrate how differences between beamlines can be managed using scripted devices and operations may be found in the online DCS administrator's manual (McPhillips, 2002a[McPhillips, S. E. (2002a). Blu-Ice/DCS Administrator's Manual, .]).

4. Software portability and availability

The large number of operating systems already in use at synchrotron radiation beamlines, combined with the new computing platforms likely to be exploited by future hardware vendors, necessitates a truly cross-platform approach to beamline software development. Furthermore, there are significant performance constraints on many of the software subsystems within Blu-Ice/DCS. High-performance multi-threaded compiled code is required when the overriding goal is to collect as many diffraction images as quickly as possible. Therefore, the development strategy for DCS and Blu-Ice was to use existing cross-platform tools such as Tcl/Tk for graphical user interface development and scripting but to use multi-threaded C and C++ programs for high-performance server software. The simple text-based DCS communication protocol was developed to minimize operating-system dependencies related to network communication as described above, and a custom library (XOS) was written in C to provide cross-platform compatibility wherever compiled C/C++ code was required.

4.1. Cross-operating-system library (XOS)

The XOS library provides a portable application programming interface (API) for system calls that are otherwise highly platform dependent. Designed specifically for multi-threaded distributed applications, the library supports threads, mutexes, semaphores, message queues, Win32-style messages (even on non-Windows platforms), memory mapped files and TCP/IP network communication. The library is written in C and uses the preprocessor to compile different code depending on the target platform so that there is no run-time overhead.

XOS currently allows the programmer to write high-performance code that runs on Linux, Irix, Tru64 Unix, OpenVMS and Win32 platforms without modification. Support for additional operating systems is easy to add, since code common to different platforms is shared. For example, the XOS code supporting threads, mutexes and semaphores is shared between the Unix-like platforms and OpenVMS, since these platforms support the POSIX threads API, whereas the underlying XOS code supporting threads on Win32 is distinct. The XOS API for managing threads is, nevertheless, identical on every platform. Not only does the XOS library hide system differences from the application programmer, it also simplifies the function calls and hides the complexities of the particular operating system APIs.

4.2. Graphical user interface development using Tcl/Tk

Although the high performance of compiled C/C++ is required for DCSS and some DHS programs, Tcl/Tk provides a rapid-development environment for implementing graphical user interfaces (Ousterhout, 1994[Ousterhout, J. K. (1994). Tcl and the Tk Toolkit. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.]). In addition, Tcl/Tk achieves a very high level of cross-platform compatibility, since a single distribution of source code underlies all Tcl/Tk distributions running on Unix-like platforms, 32-bit Windows and MacOS. Blu-Ice is written using the [Incr Tcl/Tk] extension to Tcl/Tk, which adds true object-oriented programming features to Tcl (McLennan, 1995[McLennan, M. J. (1995). Proceedings of the USENIX Third Annual Tcl/Tk Workshop, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, July 1995. Berkeley, CA: USENIX Association. ( .)]).

4.3. Availability

Blu-Ice/DCS is open source software distributed under an MIT-style free software license (McPhillips, 2002b[McPhillips, S. E. (2002b). The Blu-Ice/DCS Software Distribution, .]). Online access to the Blu-Ice/DCS software distribution at SSRL has been provided to collaborators at the Advanced Light Source (California), the Advanced Photon Source (Illinois), Brookhaven National Laboratory (New York), the Synchrotron Radiation Research Center (Taiwan) and ELETTRA (Italy). The Concurrent Versions System (Cederqvist, 1992[Cederqvist, P. (1992). Version Management with CVS, .]) is used for version control, software distribution, and incorporation of software components and patches contributed by the collaborators. Bugzilla (Mozilla Organization, 2002[Mozilla Organization (2002)., .]) is used for managing feature requests and bug reports. The Blu-Ice/DCS software distribution includes extensive online documentation of installation and administration procedures. Additional information about the software distribution may be found at the Blu-Ice/DCS distribution web site. (McPhillips, 2002b[McPhillips, S. E. (2002b). The Blu-Ice/DCS Software Distribution, .]).


Present address: Tularik Inc., Two Corporate Drive, South San Francisco, CA 94080, USA.

§Present address: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, One Cyclotron Road, Mail Stop 4-230, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.


The authors would like to thank the entire Structural Molecular Biology group at SSRL for their support and efforts with this project. In addition, we would like to thank the many external users of the macromolecular beamlines at SSRL who all gave us invaluable feedback on the functionality of the software. This project was carried out at SSRL and supported by the US National Institutes of Health, National Center for Research Resource, Biomedical Technology Program (P41-RR-01209), the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences, and the Department of Energy, Office of Biological and Environmental Research. SSRL is operated by Stanford University on behalf of the US Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.


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