Guest post: Research with global impact in a stunning location
Our partners 7th February 2018
I work in a place where robots roam the hallways, chemists explore radioactive materials and physicists work with the world’s most powerful dual-beam particle accelerator.
Located between the Irish Sea and the beautiful Lake District National Park, the Dalton Cumbrian Facility is a satellite site for the University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute. It is advantageously positioned in the heart of the UK’s nuclear centre of research, giving us incomparable access to the experts and the challenges associated with the Sellafield nuclear site.
In the beginning (on the origin of the facility)
The Dalton Cumbrian Facility is the University’s state-of-the-art nuclear research facility, offering access to unique equipment that’s not available anywhere else in the country. It’s a National Nuclear User Facility and a partner in the EPSRC UK National Ion Beam Centre*, and through the Henry Royce Institute it also plays an important part in the UK’s advanced materials research infrastructure. Developing a national facility and a concentration of expertise of this quality has been quite a journey for the team, and it’s still evolving.
I started working at the Dalton Cumbrian Facility the same month it officially opened in 2013. Up to two years before, there was a small team of brand new researchers and professional support staff working to turn a beautiful but empty building into a useable facility, starting with the real essentials like tea bags and toilet roll.
Equipment and more members of support staff followed soon after, leaving a small team rattling around a facility with immense potential. Together they got this now thriving facility up and running, so that radical science could finally happen under its roof. Now, with our research team of between 15 and 25 students and staff, we are quickly running out of laboratory space for all the equipment we use to study a subject as varied as nuclear.
Evolution: robots, chemists and particle accelerators
Back in those early days, the research team was predominantly made up of chemists studying substances related to nuclear waste. Not long after, some materials scientists moved in with their metal samples and specialist equipment to polish those samples to incredibly high levels (which is necessary if you intend to blast them using a particle accelerator).
Next came the robotics engineers, who design and build autonomous creations that can withstand high levels of radiation, or get into the tight spaces humans can’t.
Our PhD students usually complete within four years, so the occupancy of the facility is constantly evolving. Visitors from other universities and research organisations also join us to use our specialist equipment; we’re one of a very exclusive group of facilities in the world that has them in-house. Our particle accelerator is one of a select few of its kind in the world. You can read more about all our equipment at the Dalton Cumbrian Facility website.
One of the major research topics at the facility is water, which is used extensively in the nuclear industry. In certain types of nuclear reactor, pressurised water is used to transport heat away from the reactor core, exposing the water to high temperatures and neutron radiation.
We’re using the particle accelerator to recreate these conditions in a laboratory environment, so the effects can be studied safely and extensively.
Water is also used to store nuclear waste – it is one of the best and easiest ways to shield against high levels of radiation, whilst also keeping nuclear waste and containers cool. However, these processes can cause the water to become contaminated with radioactive particles, so it is thoroughly cleaned and filtered to prevent any contamination before being discharged safely to the sea.
Researchers at our facility have explored a variety of materials that can improve the cleaning process, including ion exchange resins and graphene oxide. In fact, one of the methods we use to measure the effect of radiation was originally employed to measure levels of harmful nitrate contamination in ocean water. Meanwhile, one of our PhD researchers is investigating the effect of radiation on the water inside solid concrete, which is widely used in the nuclear industry and elsewhere, but not often considered in this context.
Location, location, location
Though we are part of The University of Manchester, to reach us from the main University campus is no mean feat and takes a minimum of two hours. Visitors have even called shortly before a meeting to say they’ve made it to Manchester but can’t find our building on the University map. We have to explain that they’re in the wrong county, some 140 miles away.
These minor niggles are far outweighed by the benefits of being based in West Cumbria, with gorgeous scenery and brilliant walking and cycling routes just outside the front door, not to mention extreme sports like mountain-biking, climbing and paragliding on offer. The real reason this location was chosen has less to do with sporting pursuits, though, but was actually the proximity to the Sellafield site and the National Nuclear Laboratory’s Central Lab, only 9 miles down the main road.
This positioning means our researchers are right in the middle of the nuclear industry, able to see and experience the challenges facing the sector for themselves. Several of our students have been to the Sellafield site – both to view the facilities and processes in detail and to perform research in their specialist laboratories, where it is possible to work with highly radioactive nuclear material.
It’s not just about science
None of the research that goes on at the facility would be possible without our dedicated support staff, and we’ve been pretty lucky; our admin assistant takes on the responsibility of buying gas cylinders and regulators, and our experimental support personnel stay late to help if it takes longer than expected to prepare samples.
As well as our individual research, we get involved in a whole load of community activities. Every summer we put together projects for undergraduate students from Cumbria, who get the chance to work alongside us, see what it’s like to do a PhD, and help us with our research. We also organise an annual charity event, and have cycled through the Lake District to Manchester for the Stroke Association and walked clear across the national park for Cumbria Blood Bikes to raise money for local and national causes.
We might not be based in a bustling city but there’s a lot going on between the mountains and the sea if you look for it. I don’t think there are many places in the world where you can see a fighter jet streaking past your window as it practises manoeuvres through the valleys while you pull your research results together to present at an international scientific conference.
*Subject to contract
Words – Laura Leay
Images – Dalton Nuclear Institute