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Research Reactors

IAEA CRP 1888 (2012-2015)
Development of an Integrated Approach to Routine
Automation of Neutron Activation Analysis


Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) has been confirmed as one of the most suited opportunities for the commercialisation of research reactor (RR) services. However, lack of automation has been identified as a bottleneck in the capacity of NAA to meet client needs. Such a constraint may limit the ability of laboratories to service the needs of specific research fields, such as archaeology and epidemiology, where large numbers of samples are required. A recent survey carried out under the auspices of the IAEA indicates that laboratories that employ a certain level of automation may analyse up to an order of magnitude more samples per year than other laboratories. Indeed, in most of the cases the NAA service requests have to be rejected not because of lack of RR availability, but because of limited capacity in automation and data processing. In addition, as experience from automated NAA laboratories show, automation leads to an improvement in analytical quality through the minimisation of human error. Automation of NAA consists of a series of components that, put together, can improve the efficiency and reliability of analysis. Although many of the components already exist commercially and in various laboratories, there is no common interface that allows them to be integrated with local systems available in specific labs. Many laboratories suffer from a lack of in-house technical and engineering support. As a consequence there is an urgent need to provide a ‘framework architecture’ for the entire NAA process that will allow the development of building block that may be combined into an integrated whole.

Although a few laboratories have successfully implemented systems that provide a high degree of automation, it is not easy to gather a complete picture from the literature. As a consequence, it is not easy for laboratories that would like to adopt automation to know what path of good practice to follow.

Automation of NAA requires a significant effort for the development and implementation of software, hardware and data management. This often represents an insurmountable barrier for individual NAA laboratories that are typically staffed by only a few people, hindering the efficient use of the facility. Previous Consultants Meetings (CM) recommended that a Co-ordinated Research Project could be developed to address this pressing need within the NAA community. The IAEA has adopted this recommendation and planned and scheduled the CRP

By bringing together a range of laboratories with different skills, experience and needs, this CRP will provide an effective network to perform the significant amount of research and development required as described below. The team approach adopted in the CRP will produce a set of standardised protocols and modules that can be readily implemented at a reasonable cost. This CRP will have a modular structure in developing and implementing the hitherto missing tools for automated data processing and analysis reporting, as well as include design principles, interaction with and control of sample changers; this all with quality assurance procedures as a cross-cutting component. It will strengthen the optimization and competitiveness of the NAA process by harmonized automation hardware and software, and ultimately result in an increased NAA service capacity and thus in enhanced RR utilization. The pursued harmonization will also render in a network of NAA laboratories and experts from different countries. Finally, benefits may be expected also in the regulatory environment arising from the adoption of a standard set of protocols for automation.

Overall Objectives: The CRP will contribute to enhanced RR utilization through increased NAA capacity, additional revenue generation with more end-users serviced including countries without RRs, and increased cooperation between different RR centres.

Specific Objectives: To identify centres of expertise that can be called upon by laboratories wishing to improve automation within their laboratories; To provide comprehensive examples of designs and components suitable for the automation of hardware; To develop standardised communication protocols (software) and make them available as open source codes; To develop detailed guidelines for the integration of hardware, software, data management and related QA/QC in automated NAA facilities; To increase the level of automation in participating laboratories, according to the guidelines produced in the CRP; To facilitate the establishment of long-term cooperation between participating laboratories on automation in NAA.

Expected Research Output: This CRP will yield a unique repository of detailed information on automation in NAA facilities world-wide; a modular open source software for integrated data management in automated NAA laboratories; guidelines to enable the implementation of cost-effective automation including cross-cutting QA/QC; proof of concept through the implementation of modules and the demonstration of effectiveness through project metrics; and the formation of long term cooperative networks to sustain continuing developments and improvement in automation of NAA.