Science

AGOR celebrates its anniversary

A healthy old beast

It almost looked as though particle accelerator AGOR was ready to be demolished. But these days, it is being used for the new proton therapy and research into the mission to Mars.
By Menno van der Meer / Photos by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

To get there, you have to go all the way to the back of the Zernike campus, near the channel, past a gate and threatening signs proclaiming radiation hazard. These safety measures are there for a reason. Here, behind walls several metres thick, is the Accélérateur Groningen-Orsay, better known as AGOR. The RUG’s particle accelerator is celebrating its anniversary.

This cyclotron, which accelerates particles like a centrifuge, has been going for twenty years. The scientists at the KVI-Center for Advanced Radation Technology (KVI-CART) are ready for the next twenty. KVI-CART engages in basic research into subatomic physics and astroparticle physics, as well as application-based research in accelerator physics and physics in medicine. So how can an old beast like AGOR help with this?

My baby

For its anniversary, AGOR gets a conference, as well as a special tour for anyone interested and former employees who used to work with the machine.

What is AGOR?

AGOR accelerates electrically charged particles to a maximum of sixty percent of the speed of light. Upon leaving AGOR, these accelerated particles collide with other atomic nuclei. Studying these collisions provides insight into the nature and creation of matter.

Experiments take place in special set-ups, and detectors record the speed and direction of the particles.

What makes AGOR so special is that it can be used to accelerate both light and heavy ions; electrically charged atomic nuclei. AGOR can handle practically any element on the periodic table: from light hydrogen to heavy lead.

Bert de Vries is beaming. ‘Ah, there it is. My baby.’ He walks the hall on the second floor and looks up at the mass of panels, buttons, gauges, lights, tubes, pipes, pumps, valves, and casings that house the machine. Many of these parts are original, and they still work. ‘Everything is the same. Just the way I left it. Beautiful. This is just amazing.’

De Vries, an electronics engineer, was involved with building the machine in the French area of Orsay in 1989. After a series of successful tests, AGOR was disassembled in 1994 and shipped to Groningen. There, it was rebuilt and used for the first time in 1997.

‘It was so much work to get this machine working’, he remembers. ‘But it’s all still going. Apparently we did something right.’

New funds

Five years ago, however, it seemed as though AGOR was on its last legs. The Foundation for Fundamental Matter Research ceased its funding activities and the Board of Directors at the RUG had almost written the accelerator off. Perhaps it was best if the centre closed its doors and sold AGOR for parts?

But that crisis was averted. New sponsors announced themselves, who recognised that AGOR could be used in other ways. This did mean a course correction was in order, however.

‘Of course we are dependent on money’, says KVI-CART director Ad van den Berg. ‘We have to be flexible, able to change our research areas, and be open to new people using the facility.’

There is room to experiment and test the weirdest ideas

That means that from now on, AGOR will not be used for basic scientific research as much. Instead, it will be utilised for application-based research that is socially relevant. For example, AGOR will help with improved treatment for cancer patients, and it will make life safer for astronauts on Mars.

Proton therapy

The Centre for Proton Therapy at the UMCG is an indispensable partner in this. Currently, tumour radiation is being done with photons. But protons can help with focused radiation, which does less damage to healthy tissues.

The UMCG wants to start treating patients with this new proton therapy at the end of this year. To that end, it has installed its own accelerator to produce high-energy hydrogen bundles. ‘But AGOR can be used to do tests that can’t be performed in a medical environment. There is room to experiment and test the weirdest ideas’, says Van den Berg.

Radiation on Mars

Another boost for the old cyclotron was the fact that European Space Agency saw that AGOR was one of the facilities needed to study the biological effects of radiation in space.

If four astronauts would go to Mars for six months right now, at least one of them would die

The earth’s atmosphere protects people from radiation from space. But Mars has no atmosphere, and astronauts en route to the red planet would be exposed to enormous amounts of radiation. If four astronauts would go to Mars for six months right now, at least one of them would die’, says Van den Berg. ‘We obviously don’t want that. So we need better material to protect against radiation.’

The accelerator can play a role in this, too. By accelerating particles, it allows researchers to find out in just hours how a long-term stay on Mars would affect people in terms of radiation.

Finally, the cyclotron is also doing work for businesses. It can perform radiation tests for satellite parts, high-speed trains, or self-driving cars.

Not worn out at all

At the cyclotron, former KVI-CART employees are talking about the machine. They can pinpoint exactly those parts they made or replaced themselves. The three-storey particle accelerator is stirring up old memories.

It is not worn out at all. Accelerators are built for longevity

Just like Bert de Vries, professor of accelerator physics Sytze Brandenburg has been working on AGOR since France. They and their French colleagues would even tinker with it in the weekends. Is AGOR done for? Brandenburg is certain it isn’t. ‘It is not worn out at all. Accelerators are built for longevity. Nothing about the cyclotron needs changing, and it’s being well taken care of.’

Director Van den Berg was never worried about whether or not AGOR would continue to function. ‘It’s a rational consideration. It’s used for many worthwhile studies across different scientific disciplines. It’s even used for purposes we didn’t even know of when we built it. I think AGOR is good for at least another twenty years.’

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