Food and agriculture
Nuclear techniques are used in farming and agricultural communities to combat disease and provide other benefits.
The process of treating food with radiant energy isn't new. The sun's energy has been used for centuries to preserve meat, fruits, vegetables and fish. Infrared and microwave radiation have been used to heat food in both domestic and commercial kitchens.
Food irradiation is a process in which ionising radiation is used to keep food fresh longer and kill germs. Food irradiation is similar to pasteurising because the radiation destroys the disease producing microorganisms with radiation energy instead of heat energy. Irradiation is also used as a quarantine measure for such items as tropical fruits.
An advantage of irradiating food over traditional preserving techniques is that irradiation only causes minimal changes to the taste, appearance, texture and nutritional value of food. It is also safe. Irradiated food does not become radioactive because energy from the radiation source is too low to induce radioactivity in any material. The food also does not come into contact with the energy source, so it cannot become contaminated by radioactive material.
ANSTO researchers are investigating the impact of processes such as heating, mixing and fermenting on the molecular structure of various foods. The food science project seeks to apply neutron and X-ray scattering methods to investigate fundamental and industrial problems of national significance in food science.
Wine producing grapevines need just the right amount of water, at just the right time. Nuclear moisture probes containing radioisotopes are the most effective method available to accurately monitor soil moisture. At critical times in the growth cycle of vines, moisture measurements are taken in the field. The results are download into a computer and a log is kept of the moisture content of the soil. Irrigation is then tailored to suit the crops needs, without wasting water.
Neutron moisture gauges help farmers improve their irrigation methods, and reduce water consumption by up to 40 per cent.
Irradiation and insect control
The fruit fly poses a serious threat to fruit and vegetable crops in Australia. Controlling insects with chemicals can create environmental problems and result in toxic residues in food. In addition, many insects have developed resistance to insecticides, thus requiring continually greater amounts of insecticide for control.
The major way of controlling insects without the use of chemicals is the Sterile Insect Technique. Male insects are sexually sterilised using radiation and released into the native population. When the sterile insects mate with the wild insects, no offspring are produced. The irradiated fruit fly do not become radioactive and pose no threat to people who come into contact with them.
This approach is environmentally friendly and has been widely and successfully applied throughout the world. Indeed, it is currently being used to protect Australia's southern fruit growing area.
ANSTO's irradiation facility, known as GATRI, is used to sterilise and treat a wide range of items for medical, health, industry, agriculture and research purposes.