Lancaster University: Cutting-edge equipment to be installed at Lancaster University in UK first

The UK’s first compact accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS) – cutting-edge equipment capable of measuring trace levels of radioactive elements – is to be installed at Lancaster University.

The spectrometer, which is one of only two machines of its type worldwide, will be operated by Lancaster’s nuclear engineering researchers, and will be made available to the whole UK nuclear fission research community.

The £3.6 million investment – which includes £2.8 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences and Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation – will be operational from 2022. It will be used to assess and research trace levels of radioactive elements, particularly the actinides, in samples from around the UK’s nuclear facilities.

Actinides are used and produced in nuclear reactors, and are among the heaviest known elements. They are all radioactive, and this equipment will enable researchers to estimate levels of the actinide elements in the natural environment, and to discriminate them from natural sources, residues from nuclear weapons testing, or nuclear incidents such as Chernobyl or Fukushima.

They will be able to do this by using a compact technique that measures the ratios of these heavy isotopes extracted from samples – instead of trying to measure the radioactivity, which is often too weak to provide an accurate assessment.

By facilitating a more accurate way of measuring these isotopes, the spectrometer promises to lower the cost of decommissioning nuclear sites by helping to reduce the amount of land around sites that needs to be decontaminated. The UK AMS can also be used to assess trace quantities of beryllium-10, carbon-14, aluminium-26 and iodine-129, predominantly for the purpose of dating mineral samples.

Professor Malcolm Joyce, Chair in Nuclear Engineering and Cross-Faculty Associate Dean for Research at Lancaster University, said: “This is a truly extraordinary opportunity for Lancaster and the UK nuclear fission research community. The compact AMS capability has progressed very significantly in recent years, worldwide, to such an extent that highly-sensitive systems can now be accommodated on university campuses to provide a service to the entire research communities: it’s a very exciting prospect.”

Joël Bourquin, CEO of Ionplus in Zürich, Switzerland, said: “It is a great pleasure for us to be the manufacturer and supplier of the first MILEA system in the UK and only the second one installed worldwide, besides the prototype at ETH Zürich.”

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