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National Lab Licenses Neutron Detector for Life Sciences

Molecule structure (Oak Ridge National Lab)

Molecule structure (Oak Ridge National Lab)

Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee licensed one of its technologies for detecting neutrons to PartTec Ltd. in Bloomington, Indiana that develops neutron detectors and related systems. Financial aspects of the agreement were not disclosed.

The licensed technology — called the Neutron-Sensitive Anger Camera — allows researchers to study a range of crystalline structures for studies in the life sciences, materials science, and drug discovery, as well as earth science, geology, and condensed matter physics. The camera is based on a design by the late engineer and biophysicist Hal Oscar Anger, after whom the detector is named.

Oak Ridge developed the detector system for the Spallation Neutron Source that produces intense pulsed neutron beams for scientific research and industrial uses. The lab says its facility allows for measurements of greater sensitivity, higher speed, higher resolution, and in more complex sample environments than possible at other neutron facilities.

The Neutron-Sensitive Anger Camera, says Oak Ridge’s Yacouba Diawara, “can determine the time and position of the neutrons captured, enabling extremely accurate neutron time-of-flight measurements.” The technology has properties that make it attractive for life sciences and other types of research, says the lab, in that the detector achieves very high efficiency, high timing and position resolution, and low background noise at a reduced cost.

The Oak Ridge researchers enhanced and optimized Hal Oscar Anger’s original design, by improving the detector’s ability to view the atomic structure of crystals, such as those composed of protein macromolecules. As a result, says Richard Riedel of Oak Ridge’s Instrument and Source Design Division, “The detector is suited for biological samples because the protein crystals scientists are interested in are very small, about the size of a grain of sand.” Previous neutron detectors had problems resolving crystals smaller than two millimeters, says the lab, but the Oak Ridge system can detect crystals of one millimeter and even smaller.

Oak Ridge and PartTec previously worked together on neutron detection technology. PartTec designs, develops, and manufactures neutron detectors, particularly in response to the shortage of helium-3 isotopes used to detect gamma radiation, a deep concern of defense and security authorities. After the 11 September 2001 attacks, demand for radiation detectors depleted the nation’s supply of helium-3. PartTec and Oak Ridge then worked together to develop an alternative detector technology that does not need helium-3, and which PartTec now markets.

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