Surrey’s Nuclear Physics Group has won a £3m grant from STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council) to fund three years of experimental and theoretical research – which will have knock-on benefits in healthcare, the nuclear industry and other sectors.
The University has been successful in its bid, ‘Nuclear Physics at the Extremes: Theory & Experiment’, which will fund a new cutting-edge international research programme, in partnership with the University of Brighton. This follows a competitive process involving all the nuclear physics groups based in UK universities.
The grant will fund activities within four different research themes, which will include Surrey-led ground breaking experiments at international facilities such as RIKEN in Tokyo, FAIR in Germany, TRIUMF in Canada, and ISOLDE at CERN in Geneva. It will also see the University continuing to work in close collaboration with its partner, NPL (National Physical Laboratory).
The grant builds on a successful history of STFC-funded nuclear physics research at Surrey which dates back to the University’s earliest days.
The objective of the ongoing research is to stretch the boundaries of our understanding of nuclear existence by searching out and measuring all of the nuclei that exist in nature – not just the ones found on earth which are stable, but those that exist fleetingly in stars and which play a key role in the synthesis of the chemical elements.
Professor Wilton Catford, leader of the Nuclear Physics Group, explained: “In order to understand how most elements are made, we have to identify and measure nuclear reactions in stars. This is an incredibly complex challenge because the nuclei in stars are unstable and sometimes only live for milliseconds.
“However new capabilities have come online with the development of rare isotope beams, higher computational power and advanced analytical theories, and these enable us to begin to do experiments and to build theoretical models which will bring a good understanding. It’s fair to say that we are some of the leaders in this field. A particular feature of our research is our balanced blend of theoretical and experimental effort and our strong international engagement with the handful of facilities around the world where these experiments are possible.”
Surrey’s nuclear research group has equal numbers of theorists and experimenters – which is unique in the UK – and is also one of the UK’s largest nuclear groups. The research supported by the new grant will encompass two experimental and two theoretical themes. The experimental themes address nuclear astrophysics, headed by Dr Gavin Lotay; and gamma ray spectroscopy (studying the structure of newly created nuclei) headed by Professor Zsolt Podolyak. The theoretical themes explore new directions in nuclear quantum dynamics, headed by Dr Paul Stevenson, and exotic hadronic systems (including neutron stars and nuclei containing strange hyperon particles) headed by Dr Carlo Barbieri.
This research will have a potential impact across a range of sectors such as the nuclear industry, environmental management and healthcare. In healthcare, imaging systems used to treat cancer patients such as PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) are based on nuclear techniques.
Professor Catford said: “One of the most important impacts this grant will bring, more widely, is in training PhD students and postdoctoral fellows who will then take the latest technology into industry with them. We have a proven and very successful track record in this. The fundamental nuclear physics that we do is also important because we are pushing the boundaries of measurement to perform experiments that are almost impossible and, in this way, driving the creation of new and better nuclear technologies.”