SA takes on cutting edge science

Posted On Wednesday, 29 September 2004 02:00 Published by eProp Commercial Property News
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Local and international interest is growing in the possibility of making South Africa the first African country to build a synchrotron, it emerged this week.

Infrastructure IndustryLocal and international interest is growing in the possibility of making South Africa the first African country to build a synchrotron, it emerged this week.

A synchrotron is a third-generation electron accelerator that could revolutionise the development of new industrial products and medicines, including a possible HIV vaccine.

The concept was first floated by Tony Joel, the chief engineer at the radiation instrumentation department of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA, after he attended a conference at Ithemba Laboratories, formerly known as the National Accelerator Centre, in Cape Town in 2001.

It is now being promoted by the department of science and technology.

According to African Intelligence, countries such as the US and France have backed the possibility of building a plant in South Africa and a feasibility study will be commissioned soon.

But Joel warned that this would be a "very long-term project, costing many hundreds of millions of rands, that could only become a reality in about 10 to 15 years' time."

Professor Edmund Zingu of Mangosuthu Technikon, who is president of the SA Institute of Physics, said if the project did get off the ground it would be one of the most important scientific developments in South Africa.

Joel said that South African scientists could start learning how to use the technology and developing local applications for it by tapping into similar plants in other countries.

He said scientists at the University of Cape Town were already tapping into a Brazilian facility, while scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand were using a French plant and were preparing to use one in Italy soon.

A plant in Japan had been used for some time by Australian scientists while the construction of new facilities in Australia, England, France and Jordan had either started or was nearing completion.

A synchrotron would be another scientific boost to South Africa following the recent ground-breaking launch of the South African Large Telescope at Sutherland in the Western Cape, which took the country to the cutting edge of astrophysics. 

Chris Theron, the head of the materials research group at Ithemba Laboratories, said that because of the "huge" investment that would be required - possibly with the help of donor countries and the private sector - to build a synchrotron, it would be vital for local scientists to first get used to working with it.

"It has to be driven by the users, however," he said.

These would include biologists and chemical scientists, but the people now interested in it were mainly physicists and it would be necessary to make more scientists aware of the possibilities open to them by using the synchrotron.

Joel said the synchrotron's exact location would depend on the results of the proposed feasibility study, but the "most logical" place to build it would be Midrand because of its proximity to an international airport, which would make access by international and local scientists easier.

There would be no radiation danger to nearby built-up areas as the radiation generated would be well shielded and, importantly, not nuclear.

The South African Synchrotron Initiative will be discussed in Cape Town on October 8 during the Bernard Price Memorial Lecture to be delivered by Professor Frank Larkins, deputy vice-chancellor (research), University of Melbourne, Australia

What's a synchrotron?

A synchrotron is an electron accelerator in the form of a large horizontal ring. Electrons are accelerated to speeds near that of light, while powerful magnets bend their paths around the ring.

Huge amounts of intense electromagnetic radiation are generated. It is like a huge multiuser X-Ray machine that can, for example, determine the crystalline structure of materials such as chocolate or organisms such as viruses, including HIV.

Last modified on Monday, 04 November 2013 13:09

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