Sorek Particle Accelerator to Open Doors in Decade

Israel unveiled a completed section of its own particle accelerator, presenting it to local and foreign nuclear scientists just a month after the eyes of the world were turned to Geneva's Large Hadron Collider. The Israeli version, which is still under construction, is slated to begin operation in the middle of the next decade.

The Swiss accelerator, the world's largest, is intended to help researchers trying to learn more about the origins of the universe. Although Israel's 30-meter-long particle accelerator, called the Sorek Applied Research Accelerator Facility (SARAF), is also intended for civilian research, it will serve the practical function of creating radioactive isotopes for medical purposes, said the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, which footed most of the NIS 200 million bill for the machine.

"The world is headed in the direction of accelerators of different types," said Israel Mardor, the commission official responsible for the accelerator project. "Technology today makes it possible to create powerful and precise accelerators. Israel has reached the conclusion that it cannot stay behind."

One of the substances the accelerator is slated to produce is palladium-103, a radioactive isotope that can be used to treat prostate cancer.

The accelerator is located next to the nuclear research center in Nahal Sorek, near Yavneh, and might eventually replace the nuclear reactor after scientists begin using it, said Mardor, though at the moment the plan is for both facilities to operate concurrently.

The Weizmann Institute of Science has had a particle accelerator for several decades, but the new accelerator is geared toward different kinds of particles and uses a high electrical current. Mardor said there are only a few accelerators of this kind in the world.

"The accelerator does not operate at high energy [levels] like the CERN accelerator in Geneva, but its current is high - in other words, it has a large number of accelerated particles," Mardor said.

One of SARAF's components is a neutron-production facility based on liquid lithium. The neutrons can be used for medical purposes, to identify bone fractures and breaks, or to locate fissures in aircraft and other machines.

The accelerator, which is being planned and manufactured by German research instruments company Accel, is inside a reinforced building constructed for the purpose. Researchers and technicians are supposed to leave the accelerator room, made of thick concrete walls, to avoid coming into contact with neutrons emitted when the machine is operating. Radiation detectors are built in to warn of a rising radiation level.

"When the radiation increases, the red light starts to blink," said Mardor.

The accelerator begins working when ordinary hydrogen gas or heavy hydrogen (deuterium, which includes one proton and one neutron) is injected into it. The atoms undergo a process that removes their lone electron, turning them them ions, atoms with either a positive or negative electrical charge. The ions are then subjected to powerful electrical fields, are accelerated to a speed of about one-10th the speed of light, and bombard another substance, leading to the emission of neutrons and creation of radioactive substances. Those substances can later be used for preparation of radioactive medications.

"Israel is not embarrassed of its nuclear technology," said AEC spokeswoman Nili Lifshitz. "Israel is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, but it is a responsible country that is a member of all the safety committees of the IAEA," she said, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency.