Practical Applications

Studying the nucleus of the atom is one of the purest pursuits of knowledge — search for answers to some of the basic mysteries.

What are we made of? How do we unveil the cosmos? But the science of physics, like all good journeys, is about the path, not just the final destination.

For a more in-depth look at all of the potential benefits that the U.S. Government has identified from accelerator-based research, take a look at this Special Report compiled from an intensive workshop with national experts.

Nuclear science has yielded knowledge that has led to better health. Examples of benefits from nuclear science include:

  • Cures for cancer and deadly blood clots
  • Remarkable diagnostic tools
  • Ways to make our food and homes safer
  • Ways to assess health risks to astronauts in space
  • Tools for archaeologists, military defense, security

The physics done at NSCL — and laboratories like it around the world — is the cornerstone for discovery, for innovation, for solutions.

Airport Safety

Offshoots of nuclear science can provide the technology for sophisticated security tools for detecting explosives and narcotics in airports.

Systems based on thermal neutron analysis can be used to detect the presence of narcotics and explosives inside luggage, vehicles and containers.

Archaeology

Irreplaceable artworks can be analyzed to verify their authenticity and understand their age, thanks to accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS). The accelerator-based technique is so sensitive that a nearly invisible amount of pigment—less than one thousandth of a gram—can yield valuable information about an ancient work.

With AMS, the nuclei of the atoms from a tiny sample are sorted by their various isotopes. From this, scientists can understand the sample's source or age.

Materials Engineering

The performance of electronic devices—say, on satellites or in space and military applications—can be impaired by ionizing radiation. These so-called “single-event upsets” can change the memory state of a computer chip that operates a device. Single-event upsets are studied at several nuclear physics laboratories and scientists are working to design and test chips that are radiation hardened—meaning they can resist such disruptions.

Medicine

Breakthroughs made by nuclear physics have led to development of some of the most effective treatments for cancer. Compact accelerators in hospitals make it possible to direct specific energy to cancer sites, with the goal of destroying the cancer while minimizing damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

Proton Therapy

Protons can be delivered so precisely that they stop at tumors, minimizing the damage to healthy tissue, even deep within the body. It is painless, and usually done on an outpatient basis. Proton therapy is widely accepted treatment for cancers of the head, brain, neck, and prostate.

Neutron Therapy

Neutrons were the first heavy particles to become available for therapeutic applications. Neutrons produce a high linear energy transfer (LET). Some cancers live in cells that are depleted of oxygen. These oxygen-poor cells allow the cells' repair mechanism to function better, and thus better resist radiation. High LET radiation is a more effective foe against these resilient cancer cells, so neutron therapy biologically is a more effective killer of cancer cells than more frequently used radiation techniques. Neutrons now have a well-established place in the treatment of a number of specific human cancers, particularly salivary gland tumors, malignant melanomas, soft tissue sarcomas, advanced prostate cancer, and advanced mouth and throat cancers.

Diagnostics

CAT scans and MRIs have become routine words in the world of patient care. They and other remarkable diagnostic imaging technology all come from nuclear science research.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET)

PET uses drugs that contain small amounts of short-lived radioactive isotopes that are injected into the body, then tracked with sophisticated machinery. The result: a picture of some of the most fascinating functions of the body—images within the brain that can detect neurological and long-range plan psychiatric evaluations. PET scans also can pinpoint neurological deficits caused by brain trauma, such as strokes.

MRI with Polarized Noble Gases

By employing laser-polarized noble gases in next-generation magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology, interiors of body cavities, which appear as voids on conventional MRIs, can be seen—even as they function. Cavities, such as the interiors of the lungs or colon, are filled with laser-polarized noble gas and then scanned via MRI. The gas’s physical properties help generate highly detailed, three-dimensional images that show organ function in real-time. MRI employing laser-polarized gas may make it possible, for example, for a physician to precisely identify diseased portions of a lung before performing delicate surgery.

Trace Isotope Analysis

Nuclear radioactive isotopes produced by accelerators or nuclear reactors are used widely in many areas of biological and biomedical research. These isotopes have chemical properties identical to their stable counterparts, but they decay. As they decay, they leave signals—tracers. With these radioactive isotopes it's possible to turn molecules into tiny transmitters without disrupting their natural function. The signals from these transmitters tell researchers how molecules move through the body.

Radioisotopes help researchers develop diagnostic procedures and create new pharmaceutical treatments for diseases, including cancer, AIDS, and Alzheimer's disease. They also are used to cure diseases—such as thyroid overproduction.

Radioactive tracers also are indispensable tools for DNA fingerprinting.

Space Science

Nuclear science has led to the development of detectors that are placed on satellites to determine possible health risks to astronauts from cosmic radiation.