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IAEA Collaborating Centre Focuses on Electron Beam Applications for Food, Health and Environmental Applications

Najat Mokhtar, Dr. Cliff Lamb, Director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research HE; Ms. Laura S. H. Holgate, Permanent Representative of the United States of America to the IAEA; Dr. Suresh Pillai; and Dr. Oscar Acuna.

A signing ceremony and plaque presentation took place at the IAEA in Vienna for the redesignation of the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M AgriLife Research as an IAEA Collaborating Centre.  


Beams of accelerated electrons can do wonders to improve our quality of life, from stemming the spread of invasive insects to breaking down pollutants in the environment, to sterilizing objects and combating harmful microbes in food and water.

To further research, development and applications of electron beam technology, the IAEA is renewing its longstanding partnership with the National Center for Electron Beam Research (NCEBR) at Texas A&M AgriLife Research, which has been an IAEA Collaborating Centre for Electron Beam Technology for Food, Health and Environmental Applications since 2014.

“The NCEBR truly is a centre of excellence, developing innovative solutions for food safety and environmental protection and supporting technology transfer into society and commerce,” said Najat Mokhtar, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, at the signing ceremony held at IAEA headquarters in Vienna on September 19, 2023 to formally launch the Collaborating Centre partnership. “I look forward to deepening the IAEA’s collaboration with such a dynamic partner.”

The NCEBR has two commercial-size linear electron accelerators producing electron beams (eBeams) that are used for a variety of purposes for food safety, agriculture, environmental protection, medicine and industry. Moving at close to the speed of light, eBeams can either be used directly or converted into X-rays. In either case material is exposed to the beam or rays, which impart a precise dosage of energy without significantly increasing temperature which makes it beneficial for many types of uses and products.

“The vision of the Texas A&M Agri Life Research – National Center for Electron Beam Research is to harness the power of accelerated electrons for feeding, cleaning, healing, and shaping this world and beyond,” said Dr. Cliff Lamb, Director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research. “‘Beyond’ because the technology really does have out-of-this-world uses,” he added. A stream of electrons is gentle on food but not on microbes, so some countries use it to ensure the safety and long storage life of food consumed by astronauts in outer space.

Back on Earth, the NCEBR is fully authorised to process food commercially. For example, it processes ground meat to ensure that it does not contain bacteria that can cause food poisoning, and it treats imports of fresh fruit and vegetables so that no harmful pests can hitch a ride into the country and affect agriculture and the environment. NCEBR showcased some examples at the International Food Ionizing Symposium in September 2023, and more will be highlighted at the Joint FAO/IAEA International Symposium on Food Safety and Control in May 2024.

Increasing food security is a key area where eBeams make a difference. In addition to ensuring food safety, eBeams can speed up natural genetic variability to breed sturdier and more productive crops, deactivate pathogens for livestock vaccines, and neutralise insect pests through the Sterile Insect Technique.

“Food research is only part of this partnership”, said Professor Suresh Pillai, Director of the NCEBR. “Environmental uses include developing methods to ensure that wastewater is free of human waste and chemical effluents. It also means researching the destruction of so-called ‘forever chemicals’, cleaning the industrial legacy of trace synthetic chemicals that persist in soils and the natural environment.”

An ambitious part of the workplan is building a mobile accelerator, an “eBeam on wheels” that can be transported wherever it is needed, for example to purify water.

An emerging use of eBeams for a more sustainable future is for industrial up-cycling of discarded plastics. Since large-scale production of plastics began 70 years ago, 70 percent of all plastics produced to date have not been recycled and are now trash. The transformative power of eBeams can convert unwanted plastic into reusable resources extending current recycling potential and enabling a wider and higher-value reuse, which can help to reduce the overall volume of plastic waste.

In the medical field, sterilising medical products, including transplant tissues, is another big research priority for the IAEA Collaborating Centre.

The NCEBR plans to install a new high energy eBeam/X ray facility to complement its existing unit. This will ensure that future research can be supported by state-of-the-art eBeam services for many more years to come.


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