ANSTO’s Dr Mazumder’s research is helping the Australian aquaculture and seafood industries by developing tools to determine the geographic origin of seafood to combat food fraud.
Experts at tracing the tiny “fingerprints” isotopes leave as they move through earth systems such as water ways, our atmosphere and all living things.
Dr Debashish Mazumder, a Senior Environmental Research Scientist at ANSTO explains, “Plants produce organic carbon during photosynthesis. This carbon has a unique fingerprint which is passed on to animals as they consume the plant material, and this isotopic fingerprint is carried to the top of the food chain through predation.
“Tracing these isotopic fingerprints helps us work out the relationship between species within an ecosystem and the source of their food, which is essential for monitoring ecosystems and predicting changes. It can also play a powerful role in tracking the provenance of foodstuffs.”
Mazumder says the fast growing aquaculture industry is an example. “Isotope analysis of fish tissue and feed can provide insight into the cost-effectiveness of fish farming, whether the fish is farmed or wild-caught, and offers insight into aquaculture’s environmental footprint.”
ANSTO radiochemist Atun Zawadzki specialises in using a range of techniques, including using the radioisotope lead-210 as a “clock” within sediment layers up to 150 years old. Because radioactive isotopes decay at a known rate, a chronology can be established.
“Knowing the age of sediment layers and the substances present, we can construct a clear view of the environmental history of an area and investigate why and how changes have occurred,” says Zawadzki.
For more information on how ANSTO uses isotopes for environmental research, visit ansto.gov.au.
Image: Paul Degnan, Jamie Walden, Maree Stuart, Scott Coleman, Jay Flack, Iwan Cornelius and ANSTO CEO Adi Paterson at the launch.
The full-service innovation hub, which launched on 19 November, enables the best and the brightest minds to come together to foster innovation and change.
Nandin is a deep technology incubator for entrepreneurs, startups and small and medium businesses to embrace challenge-based innovation, design solutions and take science and technology-based products and services to market.
Nandin is significant in its own right, but its opening is also the first realisation of much broader plans for the ANSTO Innovation Precinct, which will foster close engagement between Australian scientists and both local and international businesses.
Nandin has been created from the learning of European leaders in this space, with Dr Markus Nordberg from CERN talking at the launch about the challenges and successes of nuclear science and application of design thinking.
ANSTO’s CEO, Dr Adi Paterson, said he was excited to see what nandin can contribute to the domestic and international science community.
“I am proud to today officially open nandin – the first of its kind facility in Australia, enabling great minds to collaborate, innovate and move closer to overcoming the challenges we currently face,” Dr Paterson said.
“Nandin will create linkages between a variety of organisations, academics and scientists, to utilise all the possibilities of nuclear sciences.”
The name nandin comes from the Dharawal language and means to look ahead. The hub is located on land believed to have been used as a meeting place for Aboriginal groups.
Dr Paterson was joined at the launch by Dr Markus Nordberg, Head of Development and Innovation from CERN – an organisation established in 1954 with a mission to perform world-class research and unite people from all over the world to push the frontiers of science and technology, for the benefit of all.
“It has been a privilege to have Dr Nordberg here today to share his insights on IdeaSquare, a space that brings people together to generate new ideas, the concept from which nandin was born,” said Dr Paterson.
“International partnerships with organisations like CERN provide invaluable global connections that will help us to find innovative ideas and solutions to solve problems sooner and with more efficiency.”
Dr Paterson presented the six nandin members with a ceremonial glass brick to acknowledge them as ‘foundation’ members.
“The ANSTO Innovation Precinct will deliver research solutions for industry to enhance innovation, focused on the areas of health, advanced manufacturing, industry, agriculture, food and nutrition,” he said.
“It will position Southern Sydney at the heart of innovation in Australia, and as nandin is so closely connected to our local community – providing invaluable access to world class researchers and technology.
The elusive molecule would help to cleanse the atmosphere of greenhouse gases and ozone depleting chemicals.
This molecule is the hydroxyl radical and it is often called ‘the detergent of the atmosphere’.
The expedition has departed from Australia’s Casey research station and travelled 125 km to Law Dome which rises to an elevation of 1400 m on the Antarctic coast.
The expeditioners will be in this remote site, living in tents, for nearly three months as they drill 250 m into the ice. Ice cores from this depth contain air, trapped in bubbles, that dates from around 1850 AD.
The hydroxyl radical is a naturally occurring, highly reactive molecule that plays an important role in the atmosphere as a natural air purifier by destroying greenhouse gases and ozone depleting chemicals.
However, we have no knowledge of hydroxyl levels beyond the last five decades, leaving a huge gap in our understanding.
ANSTO’s Dr Andrew Smith is part of the ten member expedition team and said the aim of the expedition is to determine the earlier atmospheric history of the hydroxyl radical, back to around 1850 AD.
“This is an exciting collaboration, which has been four years in the planning and will provide important knowledge to better understand our warming planet,” Dr Smith said.
“In order to study the hydroxyl radical beyond the instrumental record we must use naturally occurring radiocarbon.
“ANSTO’s Centre for Accelerator Science is one of the few laboratories in the world that can make these very challenging measurements.”
The scientists are travelling to Law Dome because it provides the special conditions needed for their research. The very high snowfall traps air quickly and preserves it as bubbles in the ice for millennia.
After the ice cores are collected and melted, the liberated air will be shipped to the University of Rochester to separate the trace gases carbon monoxide and methane.
Once separated, the gases are converted to carbon dioxide which is sealed in glass tubes and delivered to ANSTO. Here it is converted into graphite and measured for radiocarbon in ANSTO’s Centre for Accelerator Science.
The expedition is a US-Australian collaborative project titled ‘Reconstructing Carbon-14 of Carbon Monoxide to Constrain Long-Term Atmospheric Hydroxyl Variability’, led by CSIRO atmospheric scientist Dr David Etheridge and University of Rochester scientist, Dr Vas Petrenko.
Image: Synchrotron radiation is emitted by a synchrotron, an extremely powerful particle accelerator.
A new and innovative application of an advanced medical imaging technique is being prepared for clinical application by Australian researchers at ANSTO’s Australian Synchrotron to improve breast cancer detection and diagnosis.
The research, made possible by the Coalition Government’s $520 million investment in the facility in 2016 as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, will provide better patient outcomes.
The research is being conducted by a group of imaging scientists led by Professor Patrick Brennan of the University of Sydney and Dr Tim Gureyev of the University of Melbourne and uses the Imaging and Medical Beamline at the Australian Synchrotron with the support of Instrument scientist Dr Daniel Häusermann.
The technique, called in-line phase-contrast computed tomography (PCT), is due to be used on the first patients by 2020 and is being developed because of the high error rate that still exists with current medical imaging screening techniques.
The method, which used convention X-rays, was pioneered by Melbourne researchers in the late 1990s, including Professor Keith Nugent the late Dr Stephen Wilkins.
Approximately 30 per cent of cancers are still missed by radiologists and for patients with high breast density the missed cancer rate is over 50 per cent. This can lead to late detection of the cancer, and regrettably, often fatal outcomes from metastasis.
Speaking at ANSTO’s Australian Synchrotron campus to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, the Hon Karen Andrews MP, said the research was vitally important for women throughout Australia.
“Breast cancer is the most common cancer that affects women. There are currently over 800,000 mammograms performed in Australia each year,” Minister Andrews said.
“As many women will know, the experience of getting a mammogram can be uncomfortable and in too many cases the existing technology means cancers are missed.
“This research will mean better image quality, a more accurate diagnosis, and a smaller radiation dose. Importantly, there will be no discomfort for patients as the breast compression process will no longer be necessary.”
The work is being supported by ANSTO and an NHMRC grant of $687,000 over three years, to ready the technique for use with the first patients by 2020.
“This investment highlights the Federal Government’s commitment to supporting world-leading research, which has real world benefits for the community.”
Professor Andrew Peele, Director of the Australian Synchrotron, ANSTO said, “This vitally important research, enabled by lead researchers using ANSTO’s world-class Synchrotron and our scientists, highlights the very real benefits that science and technology can deliver to the community,” Professor Peele said.
“This is the first application of the technique using synchrotron radiation in human patients, so there is a great deal of preparation and many things that have to take place before its use. Nonetheless we are greatly encouraged by findings so far.”
A 3D animation of the medical imaging screening process can be found here.
This article was originally published on ANSTO.gov.au. ANSTO is the home of Australia’s most significant landmark and national infrastructure for research. Thousands of scientists from industry and academia benefit from gaining access to state-of-the-art instruments every year.
Scientists from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and Macquarie University have combined their respective backgrounds in nuclear science and geomorphology to determine rates of soil erosion across catchments in Asia and the Pacific.
The study, using fallout radionuclides, is part of a technical cooperation project under the Regional Cooperative Agreement for Asia and the Pacific, funded by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Soil erosion reduces land productivity and degrades soil, and can be caused by poor agricultural practices. Understanding the causes and rates of soil erosion is essential for maintaining productive agricultural landscapes, food security and the surrounding environment.
“Nuclear techniques give us an opportunity to look at the longer term patterns of soil erosion and deposition through strategic sampling and analysis,” says Dr Tim Ralph, senior lecturer at Macquarie University’s Department of Environmental Sciences. “Instead of monitoring soil erosion for many years, selective samples can be used to interpret the pattern of erosion over the past 10 or 20 years, or longer.”
The soil samples were analysed by ANSTO scientists for radioactive isotopes, such as naturally occurring Lead 210 (210Pb). “Within your soil profile, you can also see high levels of 210Pb in the top of your profile, and then the deeper you go, the more it has decayed away,” says Professor Henk Heijnis, senior principal research scientist and leader of environmental research within the Nuclear Science and Technology cluster at ANSTO.
“If you have soil erosion, you don’t see that decay of 210Pb with the profile. You might see very low values right at the top; that means the top has disappeared and nothing is accumulating at that time,” explains Heijnis.
Samples were also analysed for compound specific stable isotopes of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, which are produced by various crops in different amounts. These elements accumulate in deposition sites at the bottom of a catchment and can help determine, particularly across larger catchment areas, which crops are contributing to erosion.
“The analysis at the deposition site for compound-specific stable isotopes will give you a list of crops and land uses,” Heijnis says. “The relative abundance of these compounds will tell you the contribution of each of the types of land use and crops.”
Understanding the causes and rates of erosion and which agricultural practices are contributing to erosion will inform steps to mitigate the effects of these practices, such as terracing slopes or planting crops that can assist in soil stability.
“One of the big things this project did was to build a regional database of soil erosion based on these radionuclide techniques, so that we can now get a picture of the extent of erosion throughout Asia and the Pacific,” Ralph explains.
Scientists are continuing to construct the database of natural and unnatural erosion rates across different catchments. Ralph says the data to date shows that erosion rates were hugely variable between countries and even between different land uses within a single catchment.
There are plans for a future project to look at soil and water quality and soil structure, which would further add to the erosion database.
Featured image above: Industry engagement expert Natalie Chapman and the Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer (SIMS) at ANSTO
The Australian Government is making changes to universities’ funding that will compel researchers to cross the border from Academia into Industryland, to meet and trade with the natives, under the banner of ‘industry engagement’. This is inspiring for some researchers, but nerve-wracking for others.
I empathise with those who feel nervous, because when I was a new researcher, I was sent on a commercialisation mission into Industryland.
Fifteen years ago, I started in a role at ANSTO where I was tasked with operating a SIMS surface science instrument (Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer) on behalf of clients (researchers from around Australia) and conducting research, as well as being expected to create a spin-off business by finding new clients from research and industry.
This was an ambitious and daunting project. Not only did I have to learn how to operate an extremely complex piece of scientific equipment (it took me six months to achieve competency), but I also had to provide a highly reliable service to existing clients, while finding enough new customers to support the annual operating expenditure.
I had no background in semiconductors (the field of R&D for which the instrument was ideally suited), no knowledge of which research groups or companies (Australian or international) were strong in this field, and no clue how to create a commercial relationship with them. It was a tad overwhelming.
But my scientific training had at least equipped me with problem solving skills, so I took a deep breath and mapped a logical sequence of steps to take to make the task manageable.
Seven key steps towards industry engagement
1. Use the Internet to identify key locals and learn their language
First, I found out how semiconductors worked. Next, I found relevant conferences in Australia and Singapore (the semiconductor capital of South-East Asia). Before attending the conferences, I searched the programs for both research and industry contacts and analysed their use of semiconductors, to make a ‘hit list’ of useful people to connect with.
2. Attend conferencesand network as if your funding depends on it
I attended semiconductor and advanced materials workshops and conferences to learn more about these fields and to meet people. I asked lots of questions of everyone I met and explained the capabilities of ANSTO’s instrument to them.
3. Create some industry friendly marketing material
I wrote some simple information which addressed the problems experienced by potential customers and explained how the SIMS could help them. It’s a long walk from authoring a scientific paper to wordsmithing a marketing flier, so if you’re not up for it, use a professional writer. These days everything is visual so if you can use photos, video or animation to help describe complex concepts you’ll have better engagement.
4. Make some cold calls to relevant locals and ask for meetings
I found a semiconductor company (the only one in Australia) located in Homebush and arranged to meet with them. Then I discovered a solar cell manufacturer two doors down and introduced myself to them as well. I contacted wafer fabrication manufacturers in Singapore to learn about that market, what their needs were and how we could assist them.
5. Follow up meetings by sending your marketing materials and invite them to free trial the service
Using the SIMS instrument, I ran free test samples for potential customers so they could see the type of information it was possible to garner from their own samples and lowered the barrier to them buying.
6. Collaborate and cross-promote
I partnered my project with other ANSTO capabilities and experts to offer a packaged solution to clients. This was better value and of interest to clients rather than a small, isolated piece of analysis, which didn’t solve their problem or provide them with advice on how to fix it.
7. Approach the competition and propose a mutually beneficial relationship
After a bit of background research on the competition I approached the largest competitor Evans Analytical Labs (a US based company), to discuss the possibility of partnering with them as their South-east Asian hub, providing services to Singapore and the region.
Did I succeed in establishing an ANSTO colony in Industryland?
Sort of. I certainly found new customers for ANSTO. But the proposed spin-off company was not viable, because the Australian market was simply too small, and to succeed in South-east Asia, we needed a back-up instrument to offer 100% reliable service.
Nonetheless, I returned from my expedition with a new mindset, a new industry engagement skill set and new confidence in my ability to engage with the inhabitants of Industryland, while remaining true to my values and my first love, Science.
Featured image above: (left) False colour reconstruction of Degas’ hidden portrait, created from the X-ray fluorescence microscopy elemental maps produced at the Australian Synchrotron (right) Portrait of a Woman by Edgar Degas (c). 1876–80 . Credit: Australian Synchrotron/National Gallery of Victoria.
An alliance of Australian scientists and conservators have made a quantum leap forward in the analysis of priceless artworks, revealing an earlier painting of a different woman beneath a French Impressionist masterpiece in unprecedented detail, using a technology combination unavailable anywhere else in the world.
Shedding light on a decades-old riddle through a unique technology pipeline, researchers from Australian Synchrotron, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and CSIRO published stunning images of what lies beneath Edgar Degas’ Portrait of a Woman (c. 1876-1880) in the journal Scientific Reports overnight, midway through the artwork’s display at NGV International as part of Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition, Degas: A new vision.
Dr Daryl Howard, scientist on the X-ray Fluorescence Microscopy (XFM) beamline at the Australian Synchrotron – the newest addition to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)’s world-class line-up of landmark research infrastructure – says the re-creation of the underpainting was achieved by first producing complex metal maps to highlight minerals in the many paint types.
“‘Paint from Degas’ period was primarily composed of ground-up rocks and early synthetic pigments – with copper creating green and mercury creating red, for example – and he swirled and mixed different paints from different tubes on his palette at different times, as did the restorers who touched up this painting into the early twentieth century.
“Placing the artwork in the path of the Australian Synchrotron beam, which is a million times brighter than the sun, we measured the exact location of different pigment mixtures in every one millimetre square pixel, and fed the vast volumes of data into a computer to reconstruct both the surface and underlying layers.”
Howard says the technique is an ‘order of magnitude’ improvement for non-intrusive art analysis, crucial when handling priceless artworks.
“Eight years ago, a low resolution three-element image, which revealed a face beneath Vincent Van Gogh’s Patch of Grass 1887, inspired us to refine and advance non-destructive imaging using some of the world’s most advanced scientific technology.
“This analysis takes this “hands-off” approach to the next level, producing enormous 31.6 megapixel images – beyond the resolution of most of today’s best digital cameras – while subjecting each part of the artwork to radiation for only a fraction of a second to ensure it is not damaged.”
CSIRO engineer Robin Kirkham says the powerful light of the Australian Synchrotron combined with a highly sensitive detector devised at CSIRO are behind the revolutionary new technique.
“Developed by CSIRO with US project partner Brookhaven National Laboratory over the past few years, the Maia detector can complete complex elemental imaging a hundred times faster than conventional systems.”
“Coupled with the brilliant synchrotron beam, in 33 hours the detector produced images with around 250 times more pixel definition than the far smaller 2008 Van Gogh images that took about two days to produce.”
It’s not the first time the NGV, Australian Synchrotron and CSIRO have joined forces to solve an art mystery. In 2010 similar techniques were used to find a hidden Arthur Streeton self-portrait buried under layers of lead paint and, in 2015, a major project helped uncover hidden secrets in Frederick McCubbin’s The North wind.
Degas: a new vision is exhibiting at NGV until Sunday 18 September.
As an avid Star Wars fan I’d like to explore the topic of research commercialisation using terms that a Jedi Knight would recognise.
The Federal Government is seeking a better return on its sizeable investment in research through:
better commercialisation of research
more engagement between researchers and industry, and
changing the requirements for funding for research institutions and the incentives for researchers.
To some, this push for a more commercial and applied approach to research is like the Emperor urging Luke Skywalker to embrace the dark side of the force.
Like a Jedi apprentice, I began my science degree because of my love of science and desire to make a difference. I was not interested in doing a business degree or any degree that would purely maximise my salary prospects.
I chose an honours project close to my heart, involving ‘cis-platinum’ chemotherapy for breast cancer, with which my aunt had been recently diagnosed. Unfortunately the project was given to a student who was less passionate about it, but had a higher grade point average than me.
I was forced to find an alternative project. Seeking something with a practical application, I changed universities and chose a project sponsored by a company seeking a solution to a problem. My honours thesis titled ‘The wettability of rough surfaces’ looked at why roughening a surface could make it more hydrophobic for practical applications in non-stick surfaces.
When I started work at ANSTO, in a role that was half research and half business development, I was tasked with creating a spin-off business involving one of the research instruments.
As I was introduced to other research staff, a term came up that I was familiar with, but not in a work context. Some researchers referred to me as having moved to the “dark side”. This was said as a joke, but it stemmed from an underlying belief that anyone associated with commercialisation, or engaging with industry regularly, was doing something wrong.
The implication was that there was something suspect about me for being involved in this type of activity, ‘tainted’ by commerce.
Being older and – I’d like to think – somewhat wiser, I now reflect that, had I continued along the pathway of medical research into breast cancer, perhaps I would have made an amazing discovery that could have saved many lives. But for my research to result in a cure would require the involvement of commercialisation experts – the kind of person I have become.
Between a cancer research discovery and a cured patient lies the long and arduous process of commercialisation which requires a team-based approach, where research and commercial staff work collaboratively.
I know now that being responsible for industry engagement, or commercialisation of a project rather than the research, does not mean my work is any less important, pure or noble. I’m using my strongest skills in the best way to have a positive impact for humanity, in my own way.
Commercialisation experts are not the Sith, we bring balance to the force by forging new Australian industries and actively training young researchers in the ways of industry, for research alone cannot achieve a better future.
I believe commercialisation is not the Dark Side, it is A New Hope.
Natalie Chapman is a commercialisation and marketing expert with more than 15 years of experience turning innovative ideas and technologies into thriving businesses.
She co-founded her company gemaker in 2011 after almost a decade leading business development and marketing projects at ANSTO and, in 2013, won a Stevie Award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
Natalie specialises in mining, new materials, environmental and ICT technologies. She takes technologies from research through to start-up, assisting her clients with commercialisation strategy, building licensing revenue, securing funding grants, tenders and engaging with industry.
Natalie also heads corporate communications at ASX-listed mining and exploration company Alkane Resources and is responsible for attracting investment, government relations and marketing communications.
Natalie has a Bachelor of Science with honours (Chemistry) from the University of New South Wales and a Master of Business Administration (Marketing) from the University of Wollongong.
ANSTO’s Synroc technology locks up radioactive elements in ‘synthetic rock’ allowing waste, like naturally occurring minerals, to be kept safely in the environment for millions of years.
Synroc technology offers excellent chemical durability and minimises waste and disposal volumes, decreasing environmental risks and lowering emissions and secondary wastes.
ANSTO’s Synroc team is developing a waste treatment processing plant using Synroc technology for Australia’s molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) waste; Mo-99 is the parent nuclide for technetium-99m, the most widely used radioisotope in nuclear medicine. The plant will be the first of its kind, and will lead the world in managing nuclear wastes from Mo-99 production.
Dr Daniel Gregg, leader of the Synroc waste form engineering team at ANSTO, says the plant will demonstrate Australia’s commitment to providing technology solutions to the global nuclear community.
“We hope to partner with others and build several more plants around the world using Synroc technology,” he says.
Gregg says several countries are looking to build new Mo-99 production facilities, and regulators want assurances that facilities will be able to treat the resulting waste streams.
“With national regulators around the world putting more and more pressure on waste producers to deal with nuclear wastes, opportunities exist for Synroc as a leading option for nuclear waste treatment.” This places Synroc and Australia in an enviable position, adds Gregg.
“Synroc is a cost-effective, environmentally responsible option to treat and appropriately dispose of nuclear wastes without leaving a burden to future generations.”
In developing the plant, the Synroc team has designed process engineering technology and a fully integrated pilot plant that can treat large volumes of waste under a continuous process mode.
The team is also collaborating with national laboratories around the world to demonstrate strategies to treat radioactive waste for commercial benefit.
The focus is on waste streams – such as the growing stockpiles of long-lived nuclear waste – that are problematic for existing treatment methods. The real advantage, says Gregg, is Synroc’s ability to immobilise these problematic waste forms.
“Waste producers are required to immobilise nuclear wastes, and Synroc and Australia will be at the forefront of waste management technology.”
Watch this animation to see how neutrons travel through the EMU Backscattering Spectrometer and are scattered from a sample. EMU is one of a suite of neutron-scattering instruments at ANSTO (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation) based at the Bragg Institute.
Atoms move in a variety of ways, for example by vibrating, oscillating and rotating within a material, and this can have a huge effect on the material’s properties and function. EMU reveals dynamics in protein samples, for example, helping scientists to better understand human biology – ultimately leading to better drug design.
EMU will open up a new energy window to the Australian research community, one that cannot easily be accessed with X-ray or optical spectroscopy, though some of the same physics or chemistry can sometimes be tackled with NMR or muon-spin resonance.
EMU is funded as part of the Australian Government’s Super-Science Initiative. Its conceptual design was completed in early 2010. Find out more at ANSTO.
Australia’s foremost nuclear science and technology organisation, ANSTO, is a key player in establishing safe practice in the field throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Recently, the organisation has set its sights on growing the scope of its collaborations in Asia.
In December 2012, ANSTO formed a joint research centre with the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP). The centre focuses on developing materials for extreme environments – in particular, structural nuclear materials for advanced Thorium Molten Salt Reactors. Unlike existing reactors, these next-generation reactors can run on waste fuels and they’re less likely to meltdown.
“The type of science we’re undertaking is changing from fundamental research to research goals leading to real-world applications,” says ANSTO research fellow Dr Massey de los Reyes. “For example, the ANSTO-SINAP Joint Research Centre aims to understand how materials behave in extreme environments: fusion, aerospace, nuclear reactors.”
De los Reyes and colleagues aim to use the knowledge gained in the centre to develop new strategic research partnerships with industry and other organisations, looking at improving existing materials used in thorium reactors or developing entirely new materials for use in extreme environments. “This information could benefit a range of processing and manufacturing industries,” she says.
“The type of science we’re undertaking is changing from fundamental research to research goals leading to real-world applications.”
Eight of ANSTO’s 25 international partnerships have been formed with Asian countries, including Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Indonesia and Taiwan. These collaborations are opening up exciting new avenues of research. For example, the National Science Council Taiwan funded the SIKA neutron beam instrument currently under construction at the Bragg Institute in Sydney.
In the arena of basic research, ANSTO Principal Research Scientist Dr David Fink is collaborating with Mongolian scientists to study the past behaviour of Mongolia’s extensive glaciated mountains. As glaciers shrink and grow, they leave evidence of their tracks in the form of rock piles known as moraines.
Dr Fink visited the region in 2013 with scientists from Israel’s Hebrew University and the University of Washington, US, to collect rocks from glacially-carved valleys in the Gobi Altai Mountains. To work out how long moraines in different areas of a valley have been exposed since the glacier retreated, Fink uses a technique called cosmogenic in situ surface exposure dating.
Using ANSTO’s accelerator mass spectrometer, the scientists can establish how long the rocks have been exposed and, therefore, the extent of past glaciation. These records fill in gaps in glacially-driven global climate change covering a period from a few thousand years to about 100,000 years ago.
Fink and his colleagues have undertaken similar work in China and central Tibet in collaboration with researchers at the Chinese Academy of Science. “It really has revolutionised the way we can quantify landscapes,” says Fink.
In the environment, big data can be used to discover new resources, and monitor the health of the resources we rely on, such as clean water and air. ANSTO is at the forefront of big data analysis and precision modelling in environmental studies at both national and international scales.
Particle accelerators are used to analyse samples at a molecular level with extremely high precision. At ANSTO, they have been integral to identifying a potential water source in the Pilbara area in northern WA, as well as measuring air quality in Australian and Asian cities.
Despite its remoteness, the Pilbara contains major export centres, such as Port Hedland, which rely heavily on sustainable use of water. In March 2014, ANSTO’s Isotopes for Water project released the results of their investigation into water quality, sustainability and the age of groundwater in the arid Pilbara region, to determine its viability as a future water resource to support the growth of the area.
“A large, potentially sustainable resource was verified by using nuclear techniques,” explains Dr Karina Meredith of ANSTO, who leads the project investigating water sources. “The outcome of this seven-year study provides a greater degree of certainty of water supply for the Pilbara.”
By calculating the age of water, ANSTO researchers can determine whether it can be drawn off sustainably, and where replacement (known as ‘recharging’) will be sufficient to maintain reservoir levels. Levels of carbon-14 in groundwater decay naturally over time, and by measuring minute traces of this radiocarbon in the groundwater with ANSTO’s STAR accelerator, scientists like Meredith can tell how old the water is. “We’ve found it’s about 5000 years old, and what was really interesting is that one of the areas had waters that were approximately 40,000 years old,” says Meredith.
Her calculations show it will be OK to drink the 5000-year-old water, as the reservoir is sufficiently recharged by water from cyclones. The 40,000-year-old vintage won’t be flowing through kitchen taps, however, as this region isn’t recharged fast enough, she says.
For more than a decade, Dr David Cohen of ANSTO has used the same accelerators to track down the sources of fine particle air pollution in Australian and Asian cities. Air pollution particles come in different sizes, but fine particles are the most damaging to human health – they penetrate deep into the lungs and have been linked to cardiovascular disease.
Cohen is the data coordinator of an international study of fine particle air pollution that takes samples in cities across 15 countries in Asia and Australasia. Combining the fingerprints detected using STAR with wind back trajectories, he’s shown that the air in Hanoi, for example, can contain dust from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and pollution from Chinese coal-fired power stations some 500–1500 km away.
In addition, to reveal the sources of air pollution nationally, Cohen’s team has recently completed a study of the Upper Hunter region of NSW, which found significant fingerprints from domestic wood burning.
“In winter, up to 80% of the fine particles were coming from wood,” says Cohen. “So the most effective way to reduce winter air pollution would be to regulate burning wood.”