Notre Dame Radiation Laboratory conducts radiation, photochemistry research
Andrew Cameron | Tuesday, October 15, 2019
To many students, the nondescript concrete building on Library Quad is little more than a source of vague rumors. Its exterior ornamentation consists solely of block letters reading “Radiation Research.”
Contrary to campus legends, the Radiation Research Building, housing the Notre Dame Radiation Laboratory (NDRL), may not have 26 stories reaching underground, but what it does have is a world-class array of particle accelerators, lasers, spectrometers and other specialized equipment for probing the secrets of energy and matter.
The groundwork for the NDRL was laid in the 1940s when the U.S. government required a high-power particle accelerator for radiation research relating to the Manhattan Project — the research effort to develop the nuclear bombs used in World War II. The only suitable machine in the Chicago region was owned by the Notre Dame Physics Department, housed in what is now the LaFortune Student Center. Former Notre Dame chemistry professor Milton Burton was commissioned by the U.S. government to perform the necessary research on the effects of ionizing radiation. In 1949, Burton formally established the NDRL, and the Radiation Research Building that now houses the lab was completed in 1963, funded by the Atomic Energy Commission.
The lab is now owned and primarily funded by the Office of Science within the U.S. Department of Energy. It has continued to perform research on the fundamental properties of radiation, as well as photochemical research. Ian Carmichael, NDRL Director since 2004, said the lab focuses on basic, rather than applied, research, but the research could have important applications in nuclear power.
“We do basic research investigating the fundamentals of radiation chemistry and, more recently, solar photochemistry as well,” he said. “The complementary thrust to radiation chemistry is targeted at basic understanding of radiation, but also to the impact of radiation chemistry on nuclear power, such as radiation degradation of reactor materials, very hot water in reactors and so on.”
While the Department of Energy is the main source of grant funding, Carmichael said the NDRL has received smaller grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. military and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), among other organizations. While the lab was previously operated on a government contract, Carmichael said that since 2004 there has been a cooperative agreement in place between the University and the government.
The NDRL houses a linear particle accelerator, as well as several Van de Graaff accelerators. Additionally, the lab has a scientific glassblower and a machinist on staff who provide specialty components and equipment maintenance to the NDRL and other science departments on campus. Radiation research remains the lab’s focus, Carmichael said, but photochemical research has become a secondary aim of the lab in recent years.
“Maybe 25% of our resources go towards our solar photochemistry program,” Carmichael said. “That includes trying to understand the fundamentals of solar cells. The big thing in solar energy nowadays is Perovskite solar cells, and we have a program trying to figure out what goes wrong … for some reason they work very well but they don’t last very long, so we’re trying to figure out why they break down and how we can stop that.”
The remainder of the resources are dedicated to radiation-related matters, Carmichael said.
“The rest goes towards radiation chemistry, which is the high-energy electrons, the gamma rays and so on,” he said. “We’re looking at the effects of stress and radiation-enhanced corrosion on aqueous solutions mainly, but also in materials in aqueous solution in nuclear reactors. Why reactors only live for 40 years, for example.”
Carmichael noted the NDRL has never done classified work, partly because the building does not meet the necessary security standards.
Aliaksandra Lisouskaya received her Ph.D. in Belarus and is now working as an assistant research professor at Notre Dame, conducting research on radiation chemistry and photochemistry at the NDRL. The equipment available at the NDRL, she said, offers unique research opportunities.
“You can find linacs [linear particle accelerators] at other places, but here there is just much more,” Lisouskaya said.
While the NDRL doesn’t build devices or research potential applications, Carmichael said it has made valuable contributions to science.
“Over the years, we’ve published perhaps 5,000 papers from NDRL in all kinds of journals,” Carmichael said. “Many of these papers have had a huge impact, but we’re not here to promote anything in particular.”