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UVic-led particle physics facility moves closer to completion

Graduate student Marla Cervantes designs components for the UVic-led Advanced Rare Isotope Laboratory (ARIEL) at Canada's TRIUMF lab.

ARIEL will dramatically increase rare isotope production for scientific research while creating health and economic benefits for Canadians.

Major advances in medical imaging for diseases such as cancer, new technologies and materials for industry, and fresh insights into the fundamental nature of matter—these are the expected outcomes of Canada’s newest addition to the world of international accelerator science.

The Advanced Rare Isotope Laboratory (ARIEL) is a two-phase expansion at TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, located in Vancouver. The ARIEL facility is led by the University of Victoria, working with 18 other university partners across Canada.

In October, the BC government announced its contribution of $8.7 million to ARIEL’s second phase through the BC Knowledge Development Fund, adding to significant contributions already made by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

“This research funding unlocks a whole new realm of possibility, not only for our university, but for the world of science,” says UVic President Jamie Cassels. “BC is one of the few sites in the world that has the capacity to work in this highly skilled sector, and we’re excited to see how this innovative work changes lives.”

In total, the federal government, several provincial governments and other partners and in-kind contributors, have invested approximately $100 million in the two phases of ARIEL, which will advance Canada’s leadership in the production of isotopes for use in medicine, industry and science.

Powerful tools

An isotope is a variant of a basic element, as determined by the number of neutrons in its nucleus. Every chemical element has more than one isotope.

Rare isotopes are powerful tools for scientific discovery with a broad range of real-life applications, from medicine and life sciences to advanced industrial manufacturing. The value of the global isotope market is estimated to be several billion dollars and growing.

Rare isotopes are not typically found in nature, but are produced by particle accelerators in a handful of laboratories around the world, including TRIUMF. ARIEL will triple TRIUMF’s output of rare isotopes for research and will also expand the range of isotopes produced.

Of particular promise is ARIEL’s ability to identify and develop the next generation of medical isotopes for imaging applications and targeted therapy for tumours.

“These isotopes will be used by leading medical researchers in BC and across Canada,” says UVic physicist Dean Karlen, lead scientist for ARIEL. “As soon we’ve demonstrated their value, there will be business opportunities for building and operating facilities for manufacturing them.”

At the heart of ARIEL is Canada’s first high-powered, superconducting radio frequency electron linear accelerator (e-linac) which produces some of the most powerful beams in the world for isotope creation.

Industry partnerships

TRIUMF worked closely with industry partners to develop this made-in-BC technology, which has since been marketed successfully by those partners to several countries around the world.

The first stage of ARIEL, funded in 2010, built the e-linac, an underground beam tunnel, and the building to house them. The second phase, to be completed over the next six years, will enable the e-linac to produce a wide variety of exotic isotopes and deliver them to multiple experiments simultaneously.

ARIEL is expected to reinforce TRIUMF’s role as an international hub for rare isotope research, strengthen research collaborations across Canada and internationally, catalyze new industrial partnerships, and generate more opportunities for training the next generation of scientists, engineers and technicians.

“It’s exciting for future generations,” says Karlen. “In the coming years, physicists will come up with new ideas on how to use ARIEL that we haven’t even thought of yet. It opens up a whole new realm of imagination in science.”

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