New facility lights way for future African research

World-class science requires “not just human capital, but the facilities that will allow our scientists to [innovate]”, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said at iThembaLABS’ Accelerator Mass Spectroscopy (AMS) laboratory on Monday.

This facility, based in Johannesburg at Wits University, will be the first of its kind in Africa.

AMS is a technique that uses a particle accelerator to determine how much of a certain element is present in a sample of material. This is particularly important in the paleosciences, as it can be used to date fossils without destroying them.

It is also an important tool in the biosciences and drug development, as well as environmental science.

“With AMS, it is possible to trace rare and long-lived radio isotopes in essentially every domain of our environment at large,” said Walter Kutschera, founder of the Vienna Environmental Research Accelerator. “This is the first facility of its kind in Africa. It will act as an inspiration for the whole continent.”

The laboratory was funded by the department of science and technology, the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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

Even though there are other particle accelerators in Africa, namely Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria, this was the only facility with an AMS laboratory, Mullins said.

“With the launch of the new AMS lab, South Africa again places itself among the world leaders in accelerator-based research,” he said.

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, chief executive of the NRF, which oversees iThembaLABS, said that the facility would “change the environment at Wits University”, as scientists would now have access to this state-of-the-art infrastructure on their campus. “We hope that the academics at Wits will benefit, but also at the University of Johannesburg and surrounding institutions,” he said.

Pandor said that infrastructure development, and facilities like the AMS laboratory, were important to help the department of science and technology realise its 10-year innovation plan, which sees South Africa turning from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy through research and development, innovation and human capital development.

“For the African continent, it is imperative that South Africa succeeds [in its 10-year innovation plan],” she said. “Through building a knowledge society … we will support the development of the African continent.”

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Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.

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