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IAEA Neutron Activation E-learning Course Helps Scientists in 40 Countries

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Neutron activation analysis being performed on replicas of ancient Mochica pottery. (Photo: Instituto Peruano de Energía Nuclear, Peru)

From helping to solve historical criminal cases to determining the fate of a disappearing beach in Jamaica and the air quality at your gym: neutron activation is an established method to find out the composition and origin of materials. An e-learning tool developed by the IAEA is now helping researchers in 40 countries to apply it.

Neutron activation is a common type of analysis carried out in around half of the 238 operational research reactors worldwide as well as in some accelerator- based neutron sources. The highly sensitive technique can reveal the concentration of a single atom in a million, without the need to tamper with or destroy the material. Its precision offers advantages over other analytical methods, and it is particularly useful for bulk analyses and to study materials that are unique and must keep their integrity.

The technique works by irradiating stable atoms with neutrons and subsequently measuring the decay – or radiation – of the elements in the sample. Scientists use it to find the chemical signature of plastics, metals, glass, soil and air particles, among others.

“The main fields of application of this method today are in environmental sciences, archaeology, cultural heritage and even forensics,” said Nuno Pessoa Barradas, Research Reactor Specialist at the IAEA. “Researchers in these fields, however, do not necessarily have a background in nuclear physics, so they may not be able to use the technique to its full potential.”

Building knowledge

In order to bridge this knowledge gap and address a growing demand, the IAEA, through the technical cooperation project Networking for Nuclear Education, Training, and Outreach Programmes in Nuclear Science and Technology, designed an e-learning course on neutron activation analysis. Launched in late 2017, the tool caters to both newcomers and specialized, advanced professionals.

This month the online training course reached a landmark target, with participants in 40 of the 52 countries with operating research reactors signing up for it in less than a year. Several institutes use the tool in the education of staff and students, including at university level.

“We face frequent changes of employees and the training of new staff is quite time consuming, especially in such a specialized field,” said Katalin Gméling from the Hungarian Centre for Energy Research. “The e-learning material offers a great collection of information to train newcomers and refresh the knowledge of senior staff.”

Discovered in 1935 by Hungarian-born chemist George de Hevesy and German-Danish physicist Hilde Levi, neutron activation originally became a useful tool to measure the mass of rare earth elements.

In the last decades, the method found several other uses, including to provide additional evidence to historical criminal cases. In 2013, using a moustache hair as a starting point, neutron activation was used to disprove the theory that mercury poisoning killed Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe, whose valuable notes were inherited and explored by his assistant (and alleged prime suspect): mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, the discoverer of planetary motion laws.  

More recently, following the theft of an estimated five-hundred truckloads of beach sand from the Coral Springs beach in Jamaica, local authorities teamed up with the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences to apply neutron activation to test the origin of sand in suspected receptor beaches, providing additional evidence to the case.

Today, neutron activation is a method used to research and test indoor air quality, for example at schools and fitness centres, by helping to determine the quantity and origin of pollutants in the air.

The neutron activation analysis e-learning tool was reviewed at a workshop last month at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna. “The tool is intended as a living book that can be constantly updated and extended as this field evolves to include different laboratory protocols and research areas,” Barradas said. The launch of a first revision is planned for early 2019.

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