By Cathal O’Connell
From decoding million-year-old climate records to looking at a Tyrannosaur’s last meal, ANSTO offers some of the most exciting projects in science and engineering
|Protected by a futuristic steel mesh, the Open Pool Light-water (OPAL) reactor at the headquarters of ANSTO, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation in Sydney, is surely one of the coolest buildings in the country.|
ANSTO is home to Australia’s most important national science facilities, and to scientists and engineers with some of the hottest jobs going.
OPAL is Australia’s only nuclear reactor and one of the most advanced research reactors in the world. OPAL produces beams of neutrons for powerful imaging techniques – penetrating enough to detect a hidden crack deep inside an aircraft engine.
ANSTO’s science facilities, including the Australian Synchrotron and the Centre for Accelerator Science, performs research addressing some big questions in science.
There are exciting opportunities for science and engineering students to kickstart their careers with ANSTO, through scholarships and industry placements for undergrads and through ANSTO’s graduate development program.
Tracking air pollution
Atmospheric scientists do important work around climate change. It’s also one of the most adventurous careers, says physicist Scott Chambers (pictured above), who recently returned from a five-week trip to Antarctica, where the sea ice in some regions is 2.5 m thick, and the only way through it is by icebreaker – a ship designed to navigate ice-covered waters.
Scott took the journey in December 2015, shepherding a unique instrument capable of tracking atmospheric radon – a naturally occurring radioactive gas.
As radon is generated over land but not over the sea, scientists can use radon measurements to figure out if the air has passed over land recently, which is vital for understanding global air currents and how atmospheric pollution is transported around the Earth.
“We’ve developed the most sensitive detectors of atmospheric radon presently available in the world,” says Scott.
When researchers at Korea’s Polar Research Institute wanted to set up a radon detector at their new Jang Bogo Station in Antarctica’s Terra Nova Bay, they called ANSTO.
“They want to find out how much pollution comes to Antarctica and where it comes from,” says Scott.
ANSTO’s expertise in radon detection complements its world-leading facilities for isotope analysis at its Centre for Accelerator Science.
ANSTO’s four accelerators (Antares, Star, Vega and Sirius) sift out atoms with different atomic weights for use in environmental science, from geology to archaeology.
Anti-leukaemia drug development
The Australian Synchrotron, owned by ANSTO, is the size of a football field (pictured right). It works like an incredibly powerful microscope, using X-ray and infrared light a million times brighter than the Sun to reveal the super small world of atoms and molecules.
As electrons whizz around the 216 m circumference ring of the Synchrotron they emit high energy X-ray and infrared light, which are directed down nine beamlines for use in nine different state-of-the-art instruments.
Dr Tom Caradoc-Davies is a beamline scientist helping researchers who come to the Synchrotron to study everything from ancient artworks to anti-cancer treatments.
Tom works on two instruments dedicated to figuring out the atomic structure of proteins.
“Proteins are molecular machines, and when you understand their structure you can understand how they work,” he says.
Scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne recently discovered a form of drug that stopped the growth of leukaemia in its tracks. The drug was previously causing serious side effects because it affected proteins in the body not involved in the cancer. So the researchers used the Australian Synchrotron to figure out the atomic structure of the proteins they didn’t want to affect, and modified the drug – reducing its side effects. This kind of breakthrough is what makes Tom want to come to work.
“Seeing these drugs come through the lab and into the clinic, and knowing the Synchrotron played a role, is fantastic,” he says.
Dr Joseph Bevitt (pictured above top) took an instrument designed for engineering applications, and used it on fossilised biological samples, revealing a new way for palaeontologists to study dinosaur bones and the preserved soft-tissue remains of ancient organisms.
When palaeontologists carve a dinosaur bone out of the rock, they lose valuable information that may lie preserved in the rocks. But, as Joseph explains, using beams of neutrons generated by OPAL, scientists peer into the depths of the rock itself, and see surprising features. “You can actually see remnants of ancient skin, muscle, feathers, blood vessels and nerves.”
The precise imaging technique is called neutron tomography, and it works in a similar way to medical X-ray imaging. But while typical X-rays only show dense materials like bone, neutrons can reveal soft tissue, signs of disease and the process of decomposition. The technique was first developed as an engineering tool, but it’s also useful for studying rare biological samples.
ANSTO’s neutron imaging instrument, nicknamed Dingo, is the only one in Australia.
“This instrument is really world class,” says Joseph, adding that people send samples from all over the world to be imaged on Dingo.
Joseph has also been looking inside the ancient skulls of early mammal-like reptiles to investigate brain structure, a Tyrannosaur stomach to figure out what its last meal was, and even the earliest-known fossilised dinosaur eggs to study the embryos and how they developed within the egg.
“To have a fossilised embryonic dinosaur and actually see its facial muscles – it’s just amazing,” says Joseph.