Africa’s first accelerator mass spectrometry lab unveiled

8 July 2014

Africa’s first accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) facility was unveiled by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor at the iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator-Based Sciences at the University of Johannesburg on Monday.

AMS is mainly used for the radiocarbon dating of biological, geological and hydrological material, as well as historical artefacts. It also has important applications in biomedicine – including Alzheimer’s and cancer research, as well as drug discovery – and in climate and environmental research.

Pandor said the new facility would help to achieve the vision, spelled out in the National Development Plan (NDP), of “turning South Africa into a vibrant knowledge-based economy … driven by the quality of the human capital we develop … our research and development infrastructure, and the enablers we have put in place to bridge the chasm between research and socio-economic outcomes”.

According to Pandor, over 300 items of state-of-the-art research equipment have been acquired and placed at various South African universities since 2005, attracting foreign scientists, increasing postgraduate student numbers and boosting local and international collaboration.

“The facility is going to be particularly valuable for purposes of human capital development, and we see it being used to train scientists and students from a variety of scientific disciplines in the use and application of rare isotopes.”

Dr Simon Mullins, who heads iThemba Labs’ Gauteng facility, said that while there were accelerator facilities in Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria, iThemba Labs was the only facility on the continent to host its own AMS lab.

“Previously, any research requiring the use of AMS warranted shipping the samples to an overseas facility,” Mullins said. “By hosting a lab locally, iThemba Labs now enables the continent’s research community with a faster and more efficient method of sample analysis.”

Mullins said the AMS lab would provide both a dynamic research environment and a rich training ground for Africa’s next generation of .

“Many of the 100 or so AMS facilities worldwide cater mainly to radiocarbon dating on a commercial basis,” he said. “We have chosen to focus on a research-oriented approach to the operation of our AMS lab, offering a wider range of isotope analysis, which will go hand-in-hand with postgraduate training for master’s and doctoral degrees.

“The lab will also be used for biomedical research applications, as well as for archaeology and palaeosciences, in which Wits University is a leading research institute that hosts the Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, the Evolutionary Studies Institute and the Rock Art Research Institute.”

The new facility is funded by the Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

SAinfo reporter