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GAMKA: The Lion of African Physics

GAMKA: UWC roars its presence to the world of physics

Nuclear physics is a field that’s crucial to fulfilling South Africa’s economic ambitions, and to discovering more about the basic building blocks of our world - and that requires applied training, hands-on experimentation and world-class equipment.

But there’s good news: A UWC-led consortium of universities (including Stellenbosch University and the Universities of Witwatersrand and Zululand) has been awarded R35 million by the National Research Foundation for a nuclear spectrometer In line with the demands of world-class research needed in the 21st century (and beyond).

The GAMma-ray spectrometer for Knowledge in Africa (GAMKA to friends - a Khoisan word for “lion) will be housed at Ithemba LABS in Somerset West, the largest national nuclear science facility on the continent .

South Africa has a long history of successfully studying atomic nuclei through high-level experiments at iThemba LABS,- and GAMKA will be used to study a wide range of nuclear properties and phenomena, such as nuclear lifetimes and gamma-ray strength functions, at a level that will allow for major contributions to be made to the field of nuclear physics and nuclear astrophysics..

Gamma spectrometers are by no means off-the-shelf instruments: The new detectors will include four clover detectors made of high-purity germanium and 17 lanthanum bromide detectors, and will be available to the four universities as well as other researchers across the country.

UWC’s Professor Smarajit Triambak, SARChI Chair in Nuclear Physics, says it should take no more than two years to outfit the new equipment.

“The way the proposal was defended in front of the NRF was that each consortium member would put a certain amount of money into the project for doing research related to the device and for general maintenance,” Prof Triambak explains.

“So that commitment is there, to keep it going, and to make the most of it.”

The spectrometer is actually a bunch of detectors that detect gamma rays, high energy photons of light that are not visible to humans, but will be apparent to the device.

These detectors will be formed into arrays that will provide unprecedented resolution (clovers) and efficiency (LaBr) for the measurement of gamma rays.

“The detectors contain reasonably large semi-conductor crystals, made of high-purity germanium and stacked in a clover configuration,” Prof Triambak explains. “The other part of the spectrometer is the lanthanum bromide detectors which are highly efficient and can detect more gamma rays, for a given number of events.”

The new detector system will be the only one of its size which can perform experiments at a stable beam facility in the southern hemisphere.

“Actually, not just other universities in the southern hemisphere will be interested, but also in the northern hemisphere, ” Professor Robert Lindsay, Head of UWC’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, points out. “A lot of the big facilities are moving towards radioactive ion beam experiments so this one, for stable beams, becomes more unique.”

Worth Waiting For

The bidding consortium was led by Professor Nico Orce of UWC’s department of physics and astronomy, who says it was a hard slog to get the submission exactly right - UWC has been preparing for this for a long time.

The process started more than five years ago but their initial submission to the National Equipment Programme was unsuccessful. But constant input from all partners meant the proposal could be updated with tons of data on the potential positive impact of the proposed spectrometer on the field of nuclear physics studies - and that ultimately made the difference.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy at UWC distinguishes itself as a major contributor to research needs both regionally and nationally, especially through the Material Science (MATSCI) and Accelerator and Nuclear Science (MANUS) courses, aimed at students who go on to do a Masters degree in these two fields. The courses are presented in collaboration with iThemba Labs and the University of Zululand.

“The impact GAMKA will have on the future of nuclear physics in South Africa is profound,” says Prof Orce. “Our training will become better, and the promotion of internationally competitive research is key to a knowledge-based economy.”

GAMKA will greatly improve the research facilities available to scientists - and provide increased efficiency that will allow more students to be trained... and ensure that training and research remain internationally relevant, and in line with the demands, sophistication and quality of research needed in the 21st century (and beyond).

“Having established ourselves as the number one university for Physics on the African Continent, this ground-breaking advancement demonstrates the sustainability of our research and innovation efforts,” says Mthunzi Mdwaba, Chair of Council at UWC. “This exciting development is in no small part testament to the impressive research being carried out by Prof Orce and his team. Well done to all of you!”