Capabilities and Instruments 

800 times

Estimates suggest that the planet could have another 33 billion tonnes of plastic by 2050. 33 Billion tonnes of plastic is equivalent to filling 2.75 billion garbage trucks, enough to wrap around the planet 800 times if lined up end to end, the researchers say in a commentary in the February issue of the journal Nature.

The whole of product lifecycle analysis, has so far mainly focused on the litter aspect and not the contamination that cannot be seen without studying at the atomic scale. 

“What we have tried to demonstrate is that the traceability of plastics, from a scientific perspective, allows the analysis of the lifecycle of plastic that extends well beyond the litter that we can see,” said Professor Banati.

“An important aspect is that – as we have seen examples from the past – certain chemical compounds or elements, such as lead or mercury, that are added to confer certain material properties – potentially enter the food  web.

“There is a clear interconnection between environmental, biological and social issues here, and we are trying to contribute to the possible answers based on measured data” said Professor Banati. 

"One important question is do we fully capture the lifecycle of materials, such as plastic, or are some of our solutions shifting the risk rather than reducing it".

The particular nuclear techniques available that are being utilised to find out more about the lifecycle of plastics through the biosphere include Infrared Microspectroscopy Beamline, X-ray Fluorescence Microprobe Beamline and Neutron Activation Analysis with ANSTO’s OPAL reactor.



Instruments Infrared Microspectroscopy Beamline at the Australian Synchrotron

The Infrared Microspectroscopy (IRM) beamline combines the high brilliance and high collimation of the synchrotron beam with a Bruker V80v Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer and a Hyperion 2000 IR microscope to reach high signal-to-noise ratios at diffraction limited (lateral) spatial resolutions; between 3-8 μm. This makes the beamline ideally suited to the analysis of microscopic samples e.g. small particles and thin layers within complex matrices, or thin coatings on surfaces.


Image: Infrared microspectroscopy beamline at the Australian Synchrotron, Melbourne


As IR radiation is non-ionising, this beamline is also ideal for the analysis of living biological cells, e.g. cancer cells treated with a drug.

In addition, a Hyperion 3000 Focal Plane Array (FPA) FTIR microscope is also installed offline at the beamline.

This allows users to collect large area overview IR images from their samples prior to high resolution mapping using the beamline instrument.

X-ray Fluorescence Microprobe Beamline at the Australian Synchrotron

The x-ray fluorescence microscopy beamline offers a range of x-ray fluorescence techniques at micron and submicron length scales using the KB mirror microprobe and zone-plate nanoprobe respectively.


xfm beamline
Dr Simon James, Post Doctoral Fellow at the X-ray fluorescence microprobe (x-ray Microspectroscopy) beamline.

Neutron activation using ANSTO’s OPAL research reactor

Neutron activation analysis (NAA) is a very sensitive method of quantitative multi-elemental analysis for up to 65 elements.

neutron activation1
Image: Interior of OPAL Reactor

It has the potential to determine concentrations in a sample from parts per billion to tens of percent, depending on the particular element and bulk matrix composition. 

Samples are irradiated in the OPAL research reactor, making them slightly radioactive. Gamma-ray spectrometry allows elements present in the sample to be identified and quantified.