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Singapore’s First IAEA Collaborating Centre: Using Accelerators for Cutting-edge Research and Development


Proton beams focused to nanometric resolutions at the Centre for Ion Beam Applications are used for a variety of applications including material science research, imaging of biological cells, nanofabrication and research programmes in forensic and heritage samples. (Photo: National University of Singapore)

The IAEA and the Centre for Ion Beam Applications (CIBA) at the National University of Singapore have agreed to carry out joint work on enhancing the use of accelerator science and technologies in multi-disciplinary applications, ranging from materials science and cultural heritage to cancer care. This is the first IAEA Collaborating Centre in the Southeast Asian country.

With a new agreement signed this week, the Agency has designated CIBA as an IAEA Collaborating Centre until 2027. CIBA’s core facility is an ion beam accelerator, which is used for multi-disciplinary research. CIBA can produce highly energetic (MeV) proton and alpha beams. By using a cutting-edge nano-focusing system developed by CIBA, it recently produced beam spot sizes as small as 10 nm, which has not been achieved anywhere else in the world. A strand of hair is around 100 000 nm wide.

“The IAEA values CIBA’s innovative approaches to research and development, as well as its unparalleled research infrastructure for developing new technologies based on fast ions,” said Najat Mokhtar, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications. “We have already been working together for several years in the fields of materials science, quantum science, cultural heritage and forensic sciences. I am really pleased that we are taking our cooperation to the next level.”

By exploring materials composition and properties down to the atomic level with fast ions from accelerators, experts can study and develop new materials for green technologies, such as improved photovoltaic cells for solar energy conversion and advanced hydrogen-evolution processes for energy storage. The new Collaborating Centre will also use accelerator-based techniques to determine the origin and authenticity of, for example, food packaging, food supplements, toys and their packing materials with the aim of increasing public awareness and safety.

“The designation of CIBA as an IAEA Collaborating Centre is a testament to our researchers’ quality innovations and expertise”, said Professor Koh Lian Pin, Vice Dean for Research and Development in the Faculty of Science at National University of Singapore. “The Collaborating Centre will investigate highly relevant research topics, from materials science to radiobiology, using accelerator-based technologies. We look forward to working with the IAEA to spur knowledge transfer and capacity building through local, regional and global research partnerships to develop solutions to real-world problems.”

CIBA’s nuclear microscopy beamline can detect elements down to the level of parts per million and visualize their distributions with sub-micrometre resolutions. These capabilities will be used to investigate the composition, structure, origin of materials and the techniques used to create cultural heritage objects. This is highly relevant in Singapore because the city was and is a trading hub in the Asia-Pacific region. Nuclear analytical techniques can provide information about the materials and techniques used in the past and help map changes in manufacturing technologies due to the movement of people. It can help identify past trading routes and how Singapore influenced the region on materials and techniques to create artifacts.

This work will be done in collaboration with the Singapore Synchrotron Light Source and the National Heritage Board of Singapore. As part of this new Collaborating Centre programme, the first session of a new IAEA Webinar series on Nuclear Analytical Techniques for World Heritage will be hosted in Singapore on 3 October 2023.

A researcher prepares feeding lines for lab-on-chip samples at CIBA. The Collaborating Centre will make use of proton beam writing techniques, developed by CIBA, to fabricate nanofluidic lab-on-chip technologies to enable single DNA molecule detection for molecular biology analysis such as genetic sequencing for clinical diagnostics and drug development. (Photo: National University of Singapore)

Sub-cellular imaging and irradiation

Another novel application utilizing the highly focused ion beam capabilities available at CIBA is sub-cellular irradiation for radiobiology. A new IAEA coordinated research project on sub-cellular imaging and irradiation using accelerator-based techniques (F11024) launched earlier this year, and CIBA is hosting the project’s first coordination meeting next week.

Ion beam irradiation of living cells at the 500 nm (sub-cellular) level makes it possible to investigate the response of individual cellular organelles, such as mitochondria in cancer treatment, to radiation damage. Ion beam based imaging techniques can provide information on drug delivery through the uptake of nanoparticles to study radio-sensitisation effects that can potentially improve the efficacy of radiotherapy.

The main goal of this project is to develop accelerator technology for improved and better tailored tumour control by proton beam therapy, one of the most advanced forms of radiation cancer treatment available. Novel quantum science-based detectors will be developed for bio-imaging, which will allow scientists to non-invasively view biological functions in real time.

“Accelerator techniques play a crucial role in examining the impact of radiation on biological cells, offering valuable insights into DNA damage and cellular responses,” said Andrew Bettiol, Associate Professor at National University of Singapore and project participant. “These findings hold the potential to be translated into clinical trials, ultimately enhancing outcomes in radiotherapy.”

Experts from 12 countries, including those from three IAEA Collaborating Centres (the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization, Japan’s National Institute for Quantum Science and Technology and CIBA at the National University of Singapore), will work together on this five-year project.

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