SA laboratory signs up for carbon speed-dating

In a large, grey, nondescript building on the corner of Jan Smuts Avenue and Empire Road in Johannesburg – just metres away from one of the city’s busiest intersections – particles are being accelerated at up to a million kilometres an hour.

Launched on July 7, the Accelerator Mass Spectroscopy (AMS) laboratory at iThemba Labs is the first of its kind on the continent.

You may ask: “Why is everyone getting so excited by a piece of scientific equipment?” Well, aside from the fact that it accelerates particles at up to a million kilometres an hour, it has become an indispensable scientific tool, especially in South Africa, with our focus on palaeoscience, climate change and drug discovery.

AMS means we can date our own fossils instead of sending them overseas, determine how drugs effect different organs of the body, and calculate how our climate has changed over time and continues to change.

To date artefacts, scientists use carbon dating techniques, in which the quantity of a radioactive type of carbon (which decays over time) in a sample is compared with stable carbon.

Using this method, scientists can determine how old a fossil is, and with AMS they can do it much more accurately and quickly – without having to cut it up and destroying it.

According to Walter Kutschera, the founder of the Vienna Environmental Research Accelerator who was present at the launch, AMS techniques improve scientists’ ability to detect carbon-14 atoms (which are the unstable isotopes) by a factor of one million compared with other methods.

Simon Mullins, head of iThemba Labs Gauteng, said: “With the launch of the new AMS lab, South Africa once again places itself among the world leaders in accelerator-based research.

“It addresses the need for both the continued development of a dynamic research environment as well as a rich training ground for technicians and next generation researchers.”

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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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