The first Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) facility in Africa was officially launched by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor on Monday. The facility is located at the iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Based Sciences (iThemba LABS) Gauteng unit, on the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
“One of the things we need to do in our country is to invest in human capital in science and technology,” she said. It was also necessary to ensure that South African researchers have the required equipment and facilities to do “exciting research in this country”.
She stressed it was essential for the country and for Africa that South Africa invest in scientific infrastructure. By doing so, the country will support the development of the entire continent and have a global impact.
“In the Department of Science and Technology [DST] we have a Ten-Year Innovation Plan. We have set some ambitious goals. They are all aimed at turning South Africa into what we hope will be a vibrant knowledge-based society,” she affirmed. “The DST is working on a number of interventions to improve our science and technology infrastructure. My first instruction on [again] becoming Minister [of Science and Technology] was – let’s look at the architecture of science in the country.”
The DST already, through the National Research Foundation, operates a “vibrant” national equipment programme which, since 2005, has acquired more than 300 examples of state-of-the-art research equipment, which have been placed at various South African universities. Some 3 000 scientific publications have resulted from research using this equipment.
She highlighted that the AMS would allow scientists from South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world to undertake world-class research and development in a large number of fields. In particular, global and regional climate change, the characterisation of regional groundwater systems, palaeoanthropology, archaeology, history and preservation technology, Earth sciences, AMS in biomedical dosimetry and qualifying therapeutic drugs.
In physics, an accelerator is a machine that accelerates charged particles, up to very high speeds and energies, although there can also be lower energy options (as in the case of the AMS). Use of an accelerator in mass spectrometry makes the identification of trace isotopes – most famously, Carbon-14, used in radiocarbon dating – much easier.
“AMS is one of the most versatile analytical tools to investigate our environment at large,” pointed out Professor (emeritus) Walter Kutschera, founder and former director of Austria’s Vienna Environmental Research Accelerator, at the launch of the new South African facility. “AMS allows a large variety of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research, particularly also between science and the humanities [for example, archaeology].”