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From obsolescence to the vanguard of nuclear physics

USP laboratories are among the best in the world

The physics laboratories of the university of São Paulo (USP) are among the best equipped in the world. Their new infrastructure permits the development of more advanced lines of basic and applied research in the areas of nuclear and atomic physics, nanosciences, optics, photonics, molecular biophysics and spectroscopy, among others. FAPESP's Infrastructure Program made these laboratories gain a outstanding position on the international scenario, by destining resources for the recovery and expansion of the buildings, renovation in electrical and hydraulic installations and the modernizing of equipment.

For example, in the Nuclear Physics Laboratory of USP in São Paulo, the researchers are participating in particle collision research. Though the research is purely of academic interest, it involves experiments that result in an enormous range of information and in a series of experiments with applications in other areas of knowledge. “In today's world, a large part of environment science is based on studies and techniques of nuclear physics. A great chunk of the tools used in materials science is underpinned on the techniques and ideas developed by nuclear physics”, illustrates Alejandro Szanto Toledo, the coordinator of the Nuclear Physics Open Laboratory of São Paulo (USP) Medical physics equipment, such as radiotherapy apparatus and the tracers for diagnosis in nuclear medicine and in biogenetic investigations, are also important by-products of nuclear physics.

However, this outstanding position of the laboratory is only recent. Around five years ago, there were problems that went from the worn out state of the physical structure of the building itself to the limitations imposed by the outdated equipment. Even the forty-meter tower that housed the heart of the laboratory, the Pelletron accelerator – equipment that allows the bombarding of the nuclei of atoms, one against the other -, ran the risk of being closed down. The structure of the concrete, built more than thirty years ago, ran the risk of cracking . There was no risk of environmental contamination since the laboratory only works with radioactive elements of short half-lives, but it would have paralyzed all of the laboratory's activity.

With the renovation of the building, all of the electrical and hydraulic installations were renewed, as well as the installation of air conditioning and of compressed air. “We're on an equal footing with the best laboratories of Europe and the United States”, guarantees the researcher. The group, coordinated Dr. Toledo, is taking part in research that is looking for experimental proof of the exact moment in which the Big Bang took place. This work is being done jointly with researchers at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), in Brookhaven, New York, one of the largest laboratories in the world, capable of carrying out research that involves very high energy. “This participation was only possible thanks to the excellence giventhrough the Infra Program to our laboratory”, explains the researcher.

FAPESP's financial resources also allowed the laboratory modernization. Various pieces of peripheral equipment were procured, such as detector chambers, which permits the analysis of the particles released after the explosion of the nucleus. “Today, 90% of the detecting and observation instrumentation have come from FAPESP financing, both through the programs of the Infra and through assistance with other thematic projects.”

With the new investments, the capacity of the laboratory doubled. “In the past, we got to the point of making use of only 20% of the operating time of the accelerator. The other 80% were lost due to the frequent maintenance problems”, tells Toledo. Today the accelerator is working twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. With greater reliability in the operation, productivity increased. “Our current average is of two scientific papers per year per researcher, published in the best international magazines”, says Toledo. By the end of this year, a post-accelerator linear superconductor should enter into operation, which will expand even more the activities of the laboratory.

The new equipment has the capacity equivalent to four Pelletron accelerators, and was in a large part funded by FAPESP, including all of the civil construction work necessary for its installation. “It's latest generation equipment, which makes use of superconductivity, and this will open up a doorway for this new technology here in Brazil”, states the researcher. While the visibility of the laboratory is growing, the prospects of national participation in very large international projects are on the increase. “Within ten to fifteen years, there'll be a much clearer answer to questions regarding the formation of the Universe, and Brazil has a great chance of being involved in this”, he says.