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27 May 2021
UWC-led GAMKA Project Makes South Africa Potential World Leader in Nuclear Physics Research

When UWC was awarded the single largest grant given by the National Research Foundation (NRF) in a competitive call for a new nuclear spectrometer called GAMKA[1], many people doubted if the project would ever see the light of day. But UWC ensured that the project was completed with great aplomb; bolstering the country’s ability to perform cutting-edge nuclear research and attracting more world-class projects in the process.

GAMKA stands for GAMma-ray spectrometer for Knowledge in Africa, and the name stems from the Khoisan word for “Lion”. It is a name that was chosen by the SA nuclear physics community for the younger generation to identify with and take pride in. Almost 10 years in the making, and involving many people and institutions, GAMKA is a ball of detectors with high-end capabilities for gamma radiation.  new detectors that are  involved in the GAMKA project*. There are also new frames to house the detectors, a state-of-the-art liquifier -- which provides detectors with liquid nitrogen at working temperatures of approximately -196 °C -- an instrumentation engineer to take care of GAMKA and lots of planning, designing, manufacturing, procurement and finances; including the necessary business plan. 

The project was composed by a consortium led by Professor Nico Orce from the Department of Physics & Astronomy at UWC, and consisted of four South African universities – UWC, Stellenbosch University, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Zululand – as well as iThemba LABS - our national facility - as the final host of GAMKA. It also included enormous support from NRF officials, the review from experts and letters of support from SKA and CERN. The NRF awarded UWC a R35 million grant through the Strategic Research Equipment Programme to address the ageing of detection equipment, to become competitive worldwide and enhance human capital development in South Africa.

GAMKA provides state-of-the-art equipment that will allow not only the consortium members, but other researchers across the country and worldwide, to study a wide range of nuclear properties and phenomena: nuclear collectivity and polarisability, extremely short lifetimes and deformed shapes, gamma-ray strength functions and the structure of giant resonances at a level that will allow for major contributions to be made to the field of nuclear physics and nuclear astrophysics.

This month, the final pieces: the liquifier and the dandelion-shaped frame, which houses the GAMKA detectors and, as a whole, forms the GAMKA spectrometer, have been completed after two years of extensive and vigorous work on the design and manufacturing[2]. The first GAMKA experiment is scheduled to run in June; producing data that will be analysed by one of our PhD students. Human capital development in the form of internationally competitive MSc and PhD graduates together with high-impact publications from the project are expected to start flowing in two to three years. 

According to Prof Orce, the GAMKA frames – now housed at iThemba LABS – were manufactured locally by SAAO and CJ Dustraction Systems in Kuils River[3], which has been getting international recognition. “Not only made in South Africa, but in one of the communities feeding UWC, too,” he boasted. “The precision work we’ve done has granted UWC the job to manufacture new detector brackets as part of a multi-institutional collaboration for a new facility at CERN (the Switzerland-based European Organization for Nuclear Research) called the ISOLDE Decay Station, where UWC has a new leading experiment.”

But how did the whole thing start?

In October 2012, Prof Orce was voted by the Nuclear Physics Community in the country as the chair of GAMKA, and was given a mandate to seek funding to address the ageing of detection equipment. Like many institutions, UWC made the application to the NRF.

For a project of that magnitude though, the university needed a one-third waiver, but didn’t have that funding available, Prof Orce recalls. However, the waiver was waived as GAMKA was assigned as a national priority by the NRF. “We were fighting for all the nuclear physics community in the country, not just for UWC. There is a general need to produce high-quality PhDs and master students, who will feed academia, national facilities and the nuclear industry. Everyone would benefit. We want our students to pursue higher education degrees using state-of-the-art equipment, make scientific breakthroughs and make South Africa a world leader in the field of nuclear physics and nuclear astrophysics”.

Prof Orce says many people were doubtful that UWC (or he) could lead this project to completion. “They were asking ‘how can you, being an associate professor, lead a project like this? ‘Being a C-rated researcher, how can you lead this project?’ and ‘How can UWC take on this project?’”. Fortunately, when the NRF panel of national and international experts was convened to make a final decision, Prof Orce had already been promoted to full professor and a B–rated researcher, putting the university’s application in good stead. A whole team from UWC and other institutions joined forces to make a strong case, although Prof Orce - as PI - was the only one who was allowed to answer questions regarding the GAMKA science case, technical aspects and the business plan. Needless to say, the meeting was a success and the funds to build GAMKA were finally granted in 2018. 

“This is massive for UWC,” Prof Orce remembered. “It was a matter of exhausting hard work spanning almost 10 years, and never being afraid of going for what our students needed to succeed in nuclear science. I’m very proud of what we have achieved in this project as a whole, not only the consortium members, but UWC at all levels: media, IT communications and international offices, finances, procurement, Physics & Astronomy department, Dean of Sciences, DVC Research and Rector Offices. iThemba LABS did the procurement of the different items and the rest of the consortium supported with various operations, in-kind contributions or building new equipment like the other new frame called the Soccerball. We acknowledge those involved in the groundwork, particularly Rakeshnie Ramoutar, Paul Papka, Mathis Wiedeking, Kobus Lawrie, Irfaan Dalvie, Robbie Lindsay, Elena Lawrie and the rest of GAMKA PIs from each institution, and many others. People must be proud of the GAMKA array, and that UWC has led this and done it with other partners. This is truly an achievement that needs to be embraced by the whole country; especially as it sets up  historically disadvantaged institutions for greatness. GAMKA may be on the floor, but the real job is not done until the science is achieved. And that’s the fun part. Vuka emaqandeni. Vulindlela!”


[2] GAMKA 3D viewer:


*GAMKA is supported by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (Strategic Research Equipment Grant Number: 114668), and by contributions from the consortium iThemba LABS, Stellenbosch University, University of the Western Cape, University of the Witwatersrand, and the University of Zululand.