The Centre for Nuclear Sciences and Technologies, C2TN, is a research unit created in 2013, located in the Campus Tecnológico e Nuclear of Instituto Superior Técnico. C2TN has a well-defined strategy focused in basic and applied research, advanced training and dissemination of scientific and technological activities related to nuclear sciences and technologies as well as in the provision of specialized services to the community. It is a Center of Reference at national and international level in its areas of expertise with a strong societal impact in Life and Health Sciences, Radiological Protection, Earth Sciences, Environment, Cultural Heritage and Advanced Materials.
The “Pontos de Vista” magazine visited a small part of the laboratories of C2TN. Let’s walk through some of the laboratories in each scientific thematic area, guided by C2TN´s researchers. And we ask a question: what is the direct contribution of C2TN activities for science and society?
“THE ALPHABET OF RADIATION”
Pedro Vaz, President of the Executive Committee, guided the magazine journalists´ to a few of the vast number of laboratories of this Center. On the way we walked by the building that houses the unique Portuguese Research Reactor, a nuclear reactor built exclusively for research in 1961 and in the origin of this Campus.
Pedro Vaz starts by explaining that we are in a pluridisciplinary center, gathering biologists, physicists, chemists, geologists and engineers among the 150 researchers, technicians, PhD and MSc students that work here.
Among the research units of Instituto Superior Técnico, C2TN is the one that offers a unique set of skills and competences, infrastructure and equipment for the applications of ionizing radiation and nuclear techniques.
There are impactful interfaces with institutions of several economic and social sectors, including hospitals, companies in the sectors of health, agro-food, archaeology and cultural heritage, professional associations, municipalities and museums. Therefore, in addition to being a research unit, C2TN is a provider of services in various sectors of society, being also involved in education and advanced training.
From medicine to electronics, the applications of radiation and nuclear techniques are numerous … Hence the motto “Radiation in the Service of Science and Society”.
Dulce Belo, member of C2TN´s Executive Committee, further stresses this point: “We want to make the society aware of the usefulness of the research performed here and deconstruct the “eccentric” scientist image, showing that those who work in this Campus do it, every day, for a better society”, refers this researcher, adding that, the participation in fairs of scientific dissemination, the creation of the Blog “the Alphabet of Radiation” and the regular presence in social media and networks have been one of the strong bets of the Executive Committee in order to achieve this objective. Aware to what’s going on in the National Scientific and Technological System, she deplores the widespread situation of precarious employment of the younger Researchers, adding however that the C2TN Executive Committee has been sensitive to this problem, supporting their researchers in these circumstances.
Manuel Almeida explains us the work carried out in advanced materials, characterized by means of a rare combination of different nuclear and non-nuclear techniques, used both for preparation and characterization. The Centre has the possibility of having very low temperatures through the operation of a liquefactor of helium, unique in the country. Helium is the substance with the lowest boiling point being used in low temperature studies and in studies involving the creation of strong magnetic fields.
Captured in deposits of natural gas, helium is transported in its gaseous state to the Campus, where it is liquefied and stored in containers, at -269 °C or 4.2 K (kelvin), a temperature very close to the absolute zero (–273,15 °C). The liquid helium is then directed to the various laboratories allowing, locally, to undertake experiments that combine extreme conditions of low temperatures and intense magnetic fields that can reach 18 T (Tesla) (about 400 000 times the value of the terrestrial magnetic field).
“There are a whole series of techniques of materials´ characterization and studies that can only be done by using low temperatures and high magnetic fields. We have a combination of low temperatures down to 0.3 K”, adds the researcher to whom “the support for research is not the desirable, we always have more ambition, however, we have managed to keep research work within laboratories, unique in the country and equipped with state-of-the-art technology”.
Manuel Almeida showed us three laboratories: one for electric transport properties; another dedicated to magnetic properties; and the Mössbauer spectroscopy laboratory. In the latter, different materials are studied, ranging from synthetics with magnetic properties to natural samples. João Carlos Waerenborgh, in charge of this laboratory, gives examples of the work done, from the reuse of the heaps of mines, to the detection of the concentration on soils of metals hazardous to human health. He also explains that the technique used for the mineralogical and geological characterization of the materials is the same used in the probes sent to Mars. Mössbauer spectrometry is a nuclear technique that has been used in the C2TN for applications in the areas of Materials and Earth Sciences.
Let’s go to one of the magnetometer laboratories, used for the study of materials relevant to areas such as quantum computing, the computers of the future. Laura Pereira, in charge of this laboratory, speaks of the rare combination of measurements at ultra-low temperatures, 0.3 K and under magnetic field up to 7 T. The materials studied here are relevant to different areas, from advanced materials for electronics, health, environment and mineral resources, with potential applications in the citizen´s everyday life.
In the laboratory of Cryostats with Magnets, Elsa Lopes speaks of the measurements of electrical transport properties through the combination of low temperature down to 0.3 K and of high magnetic fields up to 18 T allowing to study quantum effects in properties and to characterize materials with great potential application as thermoelectrics or as superconductors.
ENVIRONMENT AND CULTURAL HERITAGE
Paula Carreira told us about the use of environmental stable and radioactive isotopes (tritium and carbon 14 for example) in hydrology, as well as their use in cultural and archaeological heritage studies. The application of tritium and carbon-14 contents in groundwater dating studies allows not only to determine the age of the resources, but even more importantly, to calculate the mean time of water resources renewal essential for its proper management and protection. The applications of isotope hydrology methodologies are extremely useful and can be applied for the benefit of society, answering to problems arising in our daily life, such as the origin of the drinking water in the taps of our homes.
“Here we have the ability and the technology to study and provide practical answers to issues related to our daily life and the protection of water resources,” says Paula Carreira.
The use of environmental isotopes along with geochemical parameters allows the identification of the origin of the mineralization of the waters. For example, in coastal areas, seawater intrusion processes can be distinguished from the dissolution of evaporitic minerals, which in extreme cases may result in the degradation of the water resources for human consumption, industry and agriculture supply. She also pointed out that through these techniques it is possible to identify the polluting sources and the main responsible processes.
Isabel Dias, in charge of the laboratory of Luminescence Dating, stressed that, activities related to the Environment and Cultural Heritage, are developed with high societal impact. “We are contacted by various private and public entities, both national and international. And that is the message that we want to express, that our work is useful for society”. The laboratory is available for archaeological, historical, geomorphological and geological communities. This method evaluates the time that has passed since the last time the crystalline material was exposed to light or heated, such as when a piece of ceramic or an archaeological artifact was produced or heated. Luminescence dating combines retrospective dosimetry with environmental dosimetry.
Miguel Reis explains to us that applied studies and fundamental research are performed in the particle accelerators of the Campus. One of the techniques available is the PIXE (Particle-Induced X-ray Emission). This is a technique that identifies the chemical elements present in a material or sample, used to characterize samples of filtered air particles in environmental control studies. At present, in the laboratory, for the characterization and speciation of aerosols, the high resolution PIXE system with energy dispersion (HRHE-PIXE) is used to develop a technique capable of efficiently determining the nature of the chemical compounds in which are the elements in suspension in the air. This is important because it has a great influence on their toxicity. Since 2008 this system is capable of separating the normally overlapping lines, allowing the observation of transitions with chemical information. Being the first PIXE system with these characteristics installed worldwide, in parallel with the fundamental studies in course it has also been used in geological applications and studies of mineral resources.
The activities in this topical area encompass the development and preclinical evaluation of radioactive compounds for diagnostic and/or therapeutic applications in nuclear medicine, among others. António Paulo explains, in practical terms, this activity. The development of the radioactive compounds, the radiopharmaceuticals, aims at their administration to patients to diagnose or treat various pathologies. When the radiopharmaceutical is located in a particular organ or tumor, depending on the type of radioisotope, the radiation allows its visualization or eradication (in the case of tumors). We are talking about scientific and technological development and innovation with implications in various pathologies, namely Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, various cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
The aim is to develop new radiopharmaceutics of interest both to diagnostic and therapeutic applications in personalized nuclear medicine, which is the medicine of the future. “We combine diagnosis with therapy adjusted to each patient. The combination of valences that we have is unique in the country” the researcher says.
With several laboratories dedicated to the study of radioactive compounds, in C2TN we evaluate the new molecules with potential for clinical use, whether for diagnosis or therapeutic in nuclear medicine.
Pedro Vaz, describes the activities that aim at ensuring the quality and safety of health care involving the use of ionizing radiation in medical procedures, for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes, in the valences of radiodiagnostic, interventional procedures, in Nuclear Medicine and in radiotherapy. A pluridisciplinary team studies the biological effects of ionizing radiation (radiobiology) and the doses in organs and tissues in the mentioned procedures to evaluate the risk of cancer and other diseases induced by ionizing radiation. The aim is to prevent that users and patients are unduly exposed to ionizing radiation, with emphasis on children (paediatric exposures) in CT scans, mammography exams for the detection of breast cancer and Nuclear Medicine examinations for diverse pathologies such as cancer, cardiac, neurodegenerative (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s) and kidney diseases, among others. Aspects such as the calculation of radiation doses delivered to the tumor volume and to the healthy organs and tissues, are also subject of study.
IONIZING RADIATION TECHNOLOGIES
We also visited the Ionizing Radiation Installation, IRIS and the Technological Laboratory for Assays in Clean Areas, LETAL, both dedicated to research and development of applications of ionizing radiation to various products and materials.
António Falcão, the head of IRIS, shows the experimental equipment of gamma irradiation and the LINAC accelerator that produces electron beams and x-rays. Pedro Santos talks about the ongoing work that includes the treatment and valorization of wastewaters, decontamination of food products, inactivation of human virus that persist in the environment and the processing of macromolecular polymer based materials. He stresses that the irradiation treatment has advantages for the environment and the human health when compared to conventional treatments, which require the addition of chemical or biological compounds that, as a rule, are toxic and leave residues.
LETAL provides for research and services related to processing by ionizing radiation. In particular, it provides for assessing the microbial load and/or the physical and chemical properties of the products, as explains Sandra Cabo Verde, a researcher in the field of ionizing radiation. She points out that this is one of the areas where C2TN holds expertise that is unique in the National Scientific System and that it has a great societal impact as it allows addressing issues of Public Health, Food safety and Environmental sustainability, among others.
C2TN in numbers
- 86 PhD Researchers
- 30 PhD Students
- > 30 MSc and Graduation Students
- 160 scientific publications (in refereed scientific journals, annual average)
- Collaboration and/or partnerships with hundreds of national institutions (Health, Industry, Environment, Agro-food, Services, Energy, Professional Associations, Municipalities, Museums, Schools, etc.)
- Strong internationalization, involving hundreds of reference research centres and universities on a global scale, in scientific networks and projects
- Frequent participation in scientific dissemination actions and presentation of scientific results