UT researchers develop new method to enrich stable isotopes

YoungJee Jung

UT physicists have invented a new method, called Magnetically Activated and Guided Isotope Separation, or MAGIS, to increase efficiency, affordability and environmental sustainability of stable isotope enrichment.

According to the researchers, the technology is used for a variety of medical treatments. The research was published in “Nature Physics” in late June.

Mark Raizen, physics professor and lead researcher, said isotopes, which are different versions of an element with varying numbers of neutrons, must be enriched or separated from each other to be useful. For almost 80 years, machines called calutrons have been enriching stable isotopes, often being their only provider.

According to Raizen, calutrons have been shut down around the world due to high costs. The only remaining machines exist in Russia and will eventually be shut down.

“There is a looming crisis because most of nuclear medicine relies on isotopes, typically radioactive isotopes,” Raizen said. “Our development is very significant and important because it is the first viable replacement for a method that is over 80 years old.”

Both Raizen and Tom Mazur, a physics graduate student who worked on the study, said they believe the development will positively impact a variety of fields, ranging from medical applications to producing clean air and water.

“These isotopes will likely have medical applications,” Mazur said in an email. “In the long run, many machines operating in parallel might be able to produce sufficient quantities at high enough purities for more industrial applications — like next-generation nuclear power reactors. Just by enabling enrichment of so many different isotopes, MAGIS might enable new applications down the road not yet considered.”

Bruce Klappauf, a former senior research scientist at the University who worked on the research with Raizen and Mazur, said he believes the enriched stable isotopes are indispensable.

“[Our development] might make research into new treatments possible,” Klappauf said in an email.

Despite concerns from critics that the technology could be used by rogue states to develop nuclear weapons, Mazur said he does not believe that the new technology poses any possible threat of misuse.

“I do not think the concerns are warranted,” Mazur said. “Given that extensive infrastructure and resources continue to be invested toward these concerns, the benefits of producing so many different stable isotopes with such variety of applications far outweigh any risks.”

The group is currently focusing on educating the public and science community of the new technology.

“The underlying principles of MAGIS are very well-established, and so future work will focus on engineering machines for producing specific isotopes of interest,” Mazur said.