Roy and Niels

Roy and Niels

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Visit at the Primary Standards Laboratory in Slovakia

This post is not related to computing, but more to medical physics. Primary standards dosimetry laboratories (PSDL) are important for medical physicists, since they define fundamental quantities such as dose. If you buy some dosimeter, say, an ionization chamber, it is most likely calibrated at a PSDL (for ample amounts of money) or a secondary standards dosimetry laboratory (SSDL) which is linked towards a PSDL. Not all countries have a PSDL or SSDL, and some countries (like Slovakia in this case) have both PSDL and a SSDL facilities. To my knowledge, Denmark quite recently got the SSDL status at the National Institute for Radioprotection.

During summer vacation 2011, after finishing the run at CERN, I had a rather messy tour across Europe and also went to Bratislava to visit some friends. Here I got the chance to get a tour of the Slovakian PSDL at the Metrological (not to mistaken with the Meteological) Institute. It is my second vist at a PSDL - a few years ago, I visited the PSDL at the National Physical Laboratory in the UK, but I only got crappy mobile phone pictures.

The Metrological Institute of Slovakia, Bratislava.

The director of the institute, Jozef Dobrovodsky gave me a tour of the facility. They have a close cooperation with the NPL - most physicists working with particle therapy may have heard of proton dosimetry expert Hugo Palmans who works at NPL near London, but (quite conveniently) actually lives in Bratislava.

Jozef and Hugo looking at Roos plane parallel ionization chambers from PTW, well suited for measuring depth-dose curves of pencil shaped ion beams.
Outline of the facility.
The facility has a Betatron, a Cobalt-60 unit, a 320 kV X-ray unit, a Caesium-137 irradiator and a neutron vault with various neutron sources.

Mock-up models of Cs-137 sources (these are NOT radioactive).
A part of the control room, with the very well known UNIDOS electrometer by PTW, which I worked a lot with e.g. while at CERN.
Probably the most important room is where the Co-60 irradiator is kept. Co-60 has a long history serving as reference radiation for a wide range of dosimetric tasks. Beam quality is usualy expressed relative to Co-60 standard. However, Co-60 irradiators are getting rare. Radiation treatment with Co-60 is rather something seen in developing countries, at most hospitals they were replaced with megavolt linear accelertors, also for safety issues. (Messing with radioactive sources is always a bad thing and should be avoided). As a researcher, it gets increasingly difficult to get access to a proper reference radiation.

The yellow box holds the Co-60 source, behind the tank an additional collimator is visible which can be mounted in front of the Co-60 unit.

Co-60 irradiation room. The tank holds a Markus ionization chamber, and the dose-rate can be reduced by increasing the distance to the Co-60 irradiation unit.
Next we took a look at the X-ray irradiation room. X-rays have lower energies than Co-60 and are made electrically and not from a radioactive source.
Two X-ray sources are seen here, one in the background with wheels of various copper filers which can be positioned in the beam. Copper filters can remove characteristic lines of the X-ray spectrum, thereby flattening it. In front an X-ray diagnostic device is visible.
How to make 90 Volts. :)
Cs-137 provide a photon field at about half the energy of the MeV Co-60 photons.
Cs-137 irradiation room.
Cs-137 irradiator seen from the front. Aperture can slide to the right, exposing the room to the source.
A real gem was their Betatron: it's a Czech construction, which can deliver both electron and photon beams. The betatron is an old design originally invented by the Norwegian Wider√łe, who also invented the idea of drift tubes, widely used at almost any accelerator today. Betatrons (especially functioning betatrons) are a very rare sight today,  most were replaced with LINACs long time ago. I once saw a betatron at the physics department of Freiburg in Germany, but it was not operational anymore. This one however is still functioning! (Look how clean and tidy it is... I am used to messy laboratories.)

Second time I ever see a betatron. Yay! :-)
You can extract either photons or electrons on either side. This is the photon exit (I think).
They even had a spare betatron tube, heavily tarnished by radiation damage to the glass.
Control console for the betatron. Nice and sleek.
Power supply and controls for the betatron. Many components are still genuine Czech, manufactured by TESLA.
Finally we visited the neutron vault. Here they had three neutron irradiators: two different accelerator based sources and a range of radioactive neutron emitters. The neutron sources were kept in a cave in the floor shielded with lots of plastic material for neutron moderation/absorption. The sources they have are quite common. Some intense alpha source (Plutonium or Americium) mixed with some light material (Beryllium). A Californium source was also there which fissions spontaneously.

Neutron vault. In the floor several neutron sources are kept, and can be raised out of the cave by the visible holder. I was a bit hesitant, when the scientist suddenly pulled a string, and the holder surfaced out of the neutron cave, as shown on this picture. “Is it empty?!” “Sure it's empty.”
This accelerator was very cute: protons accelerated towards a tritium target produces a neutron beam. The design of the high voltage terminal looks very much like the design found in the terminal of our Van de Graaf KN machine in Aarhus.
The ion source can be seen in the middle.
Beam is directed against a tritium metal hydride target, which is rotated to redistribute the dissipated power over a larger area. This produces a neutron beam, exiting to the lower left.

I always found acceletor technology very interesting, especially old designs where you easily can recognize what is going on (or not). If it is eastern-european design, it's just even more interesting, since they tend to look rather different and often show signs of various improvisations.

This is some Russian accelerator based neutron source. However, it was not really used if I remember correctly, and unfortunately I didn't pick up all the details about it.
I was once told that its very characteristic for Russian accelerator systems, that the vacuum tubes are fixed with 4 screws only.

This concludes our little tour at the irradiation facilities of the primary standard lab in Bratislava. Thanks to Hugo Palmans and Jozef Dobrovodsky for the tour!

An antiproton and a proton dosimetry researcher meet. No annihilation, but some sort of a bound state, clearly sharing common goals and interests.


  1. The condition of their older equipment looks pretty amazing from the photos. A little love goes a long way :)

  2. This looks like a great facility. Is this laboratory directly involved in aerospace metrology for NPL?

    1. Hmm.. no idea, but I doubt it. To my knowledge the NPL/Bratislava cooperation is limited to topics about ionizing radiation.