ANU is home to one of the world’s most innovative nuclear science facilities and programs. This work is helping protect environmental treasures like the world’s largest coral reef, understand the origins of life on our planet and launch tech into space.
Stretching more than 2,300 kilometres along the east coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s natural wonders.
Comprising 3,000 reefs and home to 1,500 quirky species, this menagerie of marine life provides a kaleidoscope of colour popular with tourists and is worth $56 billion to the Australian economy. The reef is also a vital habitat and one of the most biodiverse environments on the planet.
But it’s dying; human-induced climate change, farming and mining, among other land change practices, are just some of the threats putting the reef at critical risk. In 2021, the world heritage body, UNESCO, listed the reef as “in danger”, saying Australia had “not done enough to protect the world’s largest coral reef system from the impacts of climate change”.
Millions of years in the making, experts warn that once the reef is gone it won’t come back.
Luckily, nuclear scientists from ANU are on the case, with their research helping to protect this precious ecosystem. This work, and their hopes for reef recovery, are powered by an off-ivory tower in landlocked Canberra.
A tower of power
Tucked in a corner of the ANU campus, the Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility (HIAF) rises 40 metres into the air.
With its corrugated beige façade (only ever painted once!) and boxy industrial form, this hulk of concrete will never win an architectural or beauty prize.
But looks are deceiving; its true value lies in the nuclear science it has supported for 50 years.
The Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility (HIAF) at ANU. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU
The HIAF is the largest facility of its kind in the southern hemisphere, home to Australia’s only experimental physics program and one of the highest voltage accelerators in the world, able to pump out some 21 million volts. At the heart of the HIAF is a ‘beam’ of billions of charged particles that often travel up to 20 per cent the speed of light.
For all of us who aren’t Einstein, what that means is the accelerator generates enough power and energy for safe nuclear experiments. This includes the ability to see inside an atom, create new materials and elements, and search for dark matter.
It also helps us fight climate change, cancer and environmental destruction, as well as protect our tech in space. Preserving our environment The HIAF allows scientists to complete ultra-sensitive atom counting that identifies and tracks both natural and synthetic radioactive materials in soil, groundwater, plants and animals.
When it comes to the Great Barrier Reef, researchers can monitor and predict soil erosion and run-off into the endangered ecosystem.
“Understanding and addressing this challenge is fundamental to the reef’s survival,” Dr Thomas McGoram, Chief Executive Officer of Heavy Ion Accelerators (HIA), which oversees the HIAF, says.
“The research conducted by ANU and performed at the HIAF over the last 20 years has helped identify ways to prevent soil loss and reduce the impact of sediment run-off on the Great Barrier Reef.”
Scientists are also using these ultra-sensitive tracing and tracking techniques to help First Nations communities living near uranium mines to select bush tucker free of radiation, rehabilitate landscapes after mining, and identify sustainable water sources hundreds of kilometres underground.
“Accurately identifying the source and movement of pollutants from activities such as mining informs our understanding of key environmental processes and enables well-targeted remediation for a safer, healthier and more productive Australia,” McGoram, who is also based at the ANU Research School of Physics, says.
Unlocking the quantum world
Quantum computers promise a new era in ultra-secure networks, artificial intelligence and therapeutic drugs, and will be able to solve problems much faster than today’s computers — think minutes instead of centuries.
With breakthrough after breakthrough, it won’t be long before Australians have this power at their fingertips. As a nation, we could have a quantum technology industry worth $40 billion by 2040.
HIA is at the leading edge of this work in Australia, with accelerators in Canberra and Melbourne giving researchers the ability to create quantum centres — the key to quantum computers and sensors.
“Unique in Australia and rare in the world, our high-energy particle accelerators allow scientists to precisely implant ions in silicon, creating the basic building blocks of our advanced and emerging quantum technologies,” McGoram says.
“We are also giving scientists the ability to build quantum centres using diamonds. This is the type of breakthrough behind ANU spin-out company Quantum Brilliance, which is building the world’s first lunchbox-size, room-temperature quantum computer.
“It will make quantum computing as common and cheap as today’s devices.”
Satellite survival in space
The harsh environment of space can take a massive toll on expensive, fragile technology like spacecraft and satellites. Damage to components caused by intense radiation in space is a major risk to missions.
Work at the HIAF is making sure Australian space technology can better survive these extreme conditions before it is hurled into the heavens. The facility allows scientists to carry out radiation testing of components destined for space, including electronics, sensors and solar cells.
Professor Mahananda Dasgupta, nuclear physicist and Director of the HIAF, says the testing capabilities the accelerator provides are unrivalled.
“This $100-million facility is the highest-energy ion accelerator in Australia and will act as a springboard to propel the Australian space industry to the next level.”
The HIAF gives Australian companies a major boost in the global space race.
“Australian companies that have never worked on space can now cast their gaze upwards and to the final frontier, developing and testing components and hardware that are vital to the success of space missions before they leave the planet,” Professor Anna Moore, Director of the ANU Institute for Space, says.
Developing novel cancer therapies
Researchers are also using the HIAF to develop particle-based therapies to help combat cancer. Candidates for highly targeted internal radiotherapy are evaluated through measurements of their X-ray and Auger electron emissions. Auger therapy is a form of radiation treatment for cancer that uses low-energy electrons to target and damage cancer cells, rather than the high-energy radiation used in traditional therapy.
New models of high-energy nuclear collisions allow for more reliable particle therapy treatment planning, helping to ensure the treatment is delivered to the right place in a patient. The effectiveness of these treatments can then be verified by new types of radiation detectors, tested at the HIAF, which are designed to monitor and evaluate radiation doses with unparalleled accuracy.
Nuclear science for the nation
With Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States signing a historic deal on nuclear-powered submarines, key questions are being asked.
How will Australia safely build and maintain these machines? Can we train the next generation of nuclear scientists and fill the gap in our existing workforce?
For more than 75 years, ANU has trained the nation’s and the world’s nuclear scientists and experts.
USS Maryland. Photo: U.S. Navy/Flickr (Public domain)
ANU is the only university in Australia providing comprehensive education in nuclear physics from the undergraduate to postdoctoral level. The HIAF is essential to attracting and retaining nuclear scientists who provide the only hands-on nuclear science training in Australia.
“In the past, Australia’s nuclear technology workforce needs have been minimal and a lot of talented and trained people have headed overseas,” Head of the ANU Department of Nuclear Physics, Professor Andrew Stutchbery, says. “So, it is vital we build sovereign capability in nuclear science. That’s exactly what we do every day at ANU.”
The University’s research-led teaching covers all aspects of nuclear science, including reactor science, nuclear fuel cycles and how to ensure policy debates are informed by science and best practice.
“For decades we’ve been training the experts Australia needs to safely deploy nuclear energy and technologies, including intensive courses with the Department of Defence,” Stutchbery says.
“We look forward to training the future generations of practitioners Australia will now need and who will help build, deploy and manage these new technologies as a consequence of this historic security deal.”
Top image: Andrea/stock.adobe.com
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