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Hows and whys of nuclear reactor

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Subatomic particles produced by the MIT Research Reactor are aiding research in areas ranging from cancer treatment to the development of better materials.

At a recent IAP tour of the facility, Edward Lau (SM 1991, NUE), superintendent of operations, spent some two hours covering the basics of nuclear fission and how the reactor works, and showing participants the apparati for key experiments. One of these was built by Professor Emeritus Clifford Shull, who won a 1994 Nobel prize for his work with neutrons (the particles the reactor was created to produce).

Mr. Lau emphasized that "this reactor does not produce electricity. We operate it to produce neutrons," which in turn are used in many ways.

For example, in one project researchers are creating better semiconductors. Neutrons sent through a silicon ingot turn some of the silicon into phosphorus. This "doping" with phosphorus allows the material to conduct faster. And unlike conventional techniques, the resulting phosphorus is distributed evenly within the silicon ingot, rather than primarily on the surface.

Mr. Lau also noted that a new medical facility at the reactor is nearing completion. Since about 1994, neutrons from the reactor have been used to treat a brain cancer. However, the medical facility used to that end, located in the facility's basement, "was too far away from the core," he said. As a result, a treatment lasted three hours. "With the new facility it should take five minutes."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 26, 2000.

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