National Physical Laboratory

NANA offers new opportunities in radioactivity metrology

A new gamma-ray spectrometer at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is set to significantly extend capabilities in radioactivity measurement, from the standardisation of radiopharmaceuticals for medical treatment, to our understanding of the rarest isotopes ever discovered.

NANA gamma-ray spectrometer

The new instrument, known as the National Nuclear Array or 'NANA', can be used to analyse complex radioactive samples with incredible speed and accuracy. Many radioactive isotopes emit gamma rays of varying energies and intensities, which make up a unique gamma-ray spectrum. NANA can read these 'fingerprints' to identify exactly which radioisotopes are in a sample, and in what quantity, within a matter of nanoseconds.

Radioisotopes are widely used in medicine, industry and research, and NANA's capabilities could provide support to a huge range of applications, including the safe storage and disposal of nuclear waste, reliable monitoring of radioactivity levels in the environment, and the safe, effective use of radiopharmaceuticals for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

But, beyond NPL's core work supporting reliable radioactivity measurements across the UK, NANA could also advance our understanding of fundamental nuclear physics. "What really drives a nuclear research scientist is measuring something that nobody's measured before," explains Patrick Regan, joint NPL-Surrey Professor of Radionuclide Metrology. "The NANA array is part of a development to measure the first gamma ray signatures in the rarest isotopes that have ever been discovered."

NANA's radiation detectors have taken part in experiments around the world, from the Argonne National Laboratory in the US, to RIKEN in Japan, and even to the home of particle physics, CERN. At CERN's ISOLDE facility, NANA was used to investigate the properties of extremely rare, unstable isotopes of mercury. By taking part in international research projects such as these, the team of researchers behind NANA ensure they stay at the forefront of developments in the underlying technology.

The key to NANA's world-class performance is its novel design, developed by Rob Shearman, a joint NPL-Surrey PhD student at NPL's Postgraduate Institute. Given a complex radioactive sample, some instruments struggle to distinguish which of the more than 3,000 known radioisotopes the detected gamma rays originate from. But NANA's 12 lanthanum-bromide detectors and picosecond reactions enable it to identify the cascade of gamma rays emitted from a radioisotope as it decays with remarkable precision.

NANA is the result of close collaboration between researchers at the University of Surrey and NPL, with support coming from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). The team is currently in the process of demonstrating the full extent of NANA's wide-ranging capabilities.

Read more about the development of NANA in Applied Radiation and Isotopes

Find out more about NPL's Radioactivity work

For more information, contact Patrick Regan

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Last Updated: 12 Sep 2016
Created: 12 Sep 2016

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