Ep 46: Giovanni Porcellana - Technology Transfer, CERN
Q1: What brought you into the nuclear reactor industry?
A1: Giovanni Porcellana decided to study nuclear engineering in high school to contribute to the future of clean energy. Porcellana pursued nuclear engineering at the Politecnico University of Turin in Italy and also at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. Porcellana became interested in fast neutron reactors during a class at university, which are able to convert nuclear waste into energy. His first job was at Cadarache in France working on ASTRID, a sodium cooled fast reactor. Porcellana’s master thesis was based around implementing a computing method for studying the behavior of the physics inside nuclear reactors.
Q2: Where did you go after your thesis?
A2: After Giovanni Porcellana completed his master’s thesis, he returned to Cadarache in France working for a private company focused on instrumentation on sodium cooled reactors. The sensors are placed at hotspots inside the reactors to measure temperature, pressure, the flow of the cooling system, and the neutron flux. In order to burn the waste into fuel, a high neutron flux is required, which cannot happen in the presence of water. Liquid metal cooling is an alternative to water cooling that can maintain the high speed and high energy. During the design phase for the reactor, Porcellana decided which type of instrumentation would be best suited for inside the reactor. After this assignment, Porcellana decided to return to Turin, Italy, and received an offer to build and design particle accelerators for chemotherapy at CERN.
Q3: How do we get individual protons?
A3: Giovanni Porcellana designed and built particle accelerators for chemotherapy at CERN, which shoot protons at cancer cells. Protons come from gaseous hydrogen, which is made up of protons and electrons, so when the gas is put inside an electric field during a process called ionization, the protons and electrons are separated. These protons are shot with particle accelerators, and in the case of cancer treatment, are bullet-like and can target a specific part of the body and stop at a certain distance. A center near Milan, Italy, called CNAO treats patient with these types of particle accelerators. After this project, Porcellana decided to join CERN in a broader sense, figuring out how technology developed at CERN can be used commercially.
Q4: Tell us about the process of making particle accelerator technology available commercially.
A4: Giovanni Porcellana’s current role involves having knowledge of what technologies exist or are being developed at CERN, having market awareness of what companies need to be successful, and bridging these worlds together. One example of CERN technology developed commercially is the world wide web, or the internet. The initial purpose of the internet was to share data more easily among different operating systems at the Center. Another example of the technology transfer is the personal dosimeter. CERN had to develop a dosimeter that would function among high magnetic fields, which was not available in commercial dosimeters at the time. CERN also developed a passive dosimeter that can detect radon and funded a start-up company to commercialize, instead of contacting existing companies to try to license the technology.
Q5: What kind of projects are currently happening at CERN?
A5: Giovanni Porcellana has a high visibility of different projects happening at CERN; one current project at CERN is MEDICIS, which uses the CERN infrastructure to produce new radioisotopes for medical imaging and treatment. These isotopes are more difficult to produce in normal facilities. In the future, isotopes may be used for diagnostics and therapy at the same time, allowing real time feedback to see the treatment is working.
Q6: How do the isotopes find tumors in imaging or treatment?
A6: Giovanni Porcellana sees the same equipment and detectors used to study both medicine and high energy physics. For imaging, a radioactive substance is connected with a molecule of glucose and injected into the bloodstream. Tumors are high consumers of sugar, so the isotopes become more concentrated at the location of the tumors. Isotopes can also be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s, based on the activity level of the brain. The study of radioactivity and matter have always been linked together in science and always been applied for medical purposes.
Q7: How are gamma rays transferred into an image?
A7: As a CERN technology expert, Giovanni Porcellana has worked with transferring gamma rays into an image. The equipment converts whatever happens with the particles or rays into an electric signal to be analyzed. PET scanners use some of the same technology as used in calorimeters in high energy physics. Scintillating crystals are physical instruments that transform the energy coming from a particle or a wave into light into a signal that can be collected by sensors and studied and an image can be computed from it. The same principle is used in the particle accelerator, but may use different crystals, electronics, and converter, but the same principles of detection are used. This same technology can be used for cultural heritage, and many museums, such as the Louvre, have particle accelerators and use them to date materials, identify its geographic origin, and verify authenticity. One project in development at CERN is a transportable particle accelerator that can be used for cultural and artistic purposes, such as buildings.
Q8: What has been your experience working in the multinational community at CERN?
A8: More than 100 nationalities are currently represented at CERN, including Giovanni Porcellana’s home country of Italy. CERN was originally developed to bring science back to Europe after World War II, with a vision of building an engine for peace. One of the first mottos at CERN was “Science for peace.” Nations that may not recognize each other politically work together at CERN for the higher goal of scientific development.