Notre Dame receives “one-of-a-kind” NAUTILUS system from U.S. Navy
Nolan Hines | Thursday, September 14, 2023
The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) recently moved to transfer its groundbreaking NAUTILUS system to Notre Dame, signing an Educational Partnership Agreement (EPA) that transferred all rights, title and interest in the instrument to the University. The measure required approval by Congress.
NAUTILUS, otherwise known as Naval Ultra-Trace Isotope Laboratory Universal Spectrometer, has been revolutionary in the delicate art of material analysis. Unique among spectrometers, it combines secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS) analysis with single-stage accelerator mass spectrometry (SSAMS). This makes NAUTILUS significantly more powerful than conventional SIMS instruments and grants the University a unique position in both research and academia.
As such, the College of Science and the College of Engineering have both taken steps to prepare and operate a joint research and teaching facility enclosing NAUTILUS. Several faculty members from both colleges have expressed interest in how this will affect ongoing research projects.
Dr. Philippe Collon, a professor and associate chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, has worked most extensively on the transfer of this system, and has high hopes for its potential. “What we’ll be looking at is what we call the needle-in-the-haystack, those small isotopic signatures that make the things like identification of the origin of nuclear materials possible,” Collon explained.
“The signature of various supernovae and other events that get recorded in meteoritic and lunar samples, those very small anomalies that are very hard to find, all things to be gleaned through NAUTILUS.”
Dr. Clive Neal, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Earth Sciences, also intends to implement NAUTILUS into his research on lunar samples from the Apollo missions. “Well, it’s one-of-a-kind,” Neal said on the instrument.
“It gives unprecedented resolution at very low concentrations and spot sizes. This provides a competitive edge in being able to get the spatial resolution required in some of these some of these analyses, especially if we’re looking for volatiles.”
The vast nature of the transfer, however, requires certain stipulations. Namely, those regarding the facility at which NAUTILUS is to be kept and maintained. Among the requirements, Collon lists are fifteen hundred square feet, complete thermal insulation, a dedicated faculty and a reliable source of energy.
Still, the real challenge lies in actually transporting the instrument.
The system’s larger parts, which include a seven-ton magnet, are currently being collected at the NRL and are expected to be fully shipped over to Notre Dame by late December.
Putting it back together will be a collaborative effort between postdoctoral researchers and graduate and undergraduate students alike, both from the College of Science and the College of Engineering. Beyond that, an expansion in research faculty will be required.
“We do not currently have the bandwidth to be able to put it back together and test it fully, because the Institute of Structure and Nuclear Astrophysics (ISNAP) already is running three accelerators here,” Collon said.
“Running one more is simply beyond what we can do, so extra personnel are clearly needed.”
Though the time and resources invested in this project are immense, so are the possibilities it presents. Collon, as the director of undergraduate studies, believes that the system will afford undergraduate students a unique learning experience.
“The usage from the point of view of academia will be training of the next generation of scientists to work on a piece of cutting-edge equipment, combining both a standard accelerator and the modernized Sims,” Collon said.
“In that sense, it allows any student, even an undergraduate student, to do measurements under supervision. Yet, it’s not only working with a piece of equipment like that, but also using it and learning techniques that nowadays, if you’re looking at environmental science, if you’re looking at nuclear forensics, if you’re looking at climate studies, are so telling about the vital processes and breakthroughs of their industry. That’s the sort of training that students will be getting here.”
Besides that, NAUTILUS’s presence at Notre Dame enables an unprecedented degree of collaboration with the University on a national level. Collon stated both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the NRL to have expressed interest in working with them in these coming years, among many others.
“There is an extensive list of universities and national labs that are heavily interested in using this unique piece of equipment,” Collon said.
“Yet, it will always primarily be a collaboration with Notre Dame and students and faculty from Notre Dame. This is going to be an incredible opportunity for students at all levels of academia.”
As of this time, Collon estimated that in the best-case scenario, the facility for NAUTILUS would be fully ready and available to faculty and students in just over a year.