Amid global concerns over scarcity of molybdenum-99, Indian scientists are gearing up to address the country’s need of producing the key radioactive isotope required for diagnostic purposes in nuclear medicine, including cancer detection.

Scientists at the Kolkata-based Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC) claim India can resort to an alternative route of production of molybdenum 99 or molly 99 at the upcoming ANURIB (Advanced National Facility for Unstable and Rare Ion Beams), Asia’s second advanced facility for research on radioactive ion beams (RIB).

Molly 99 is the precursor to technetium-99m, the radioactive isotope widely used in diagnostics because of its ability to emit gamma ray which aids physicians in tracking the spread of a disease (such as cancer) via imaging. It is made in nuclear reactors and of the world’s five primary molly 99 production reactors, the largest one in Canada – the Chalk River National Research Laboratory reactor – is to be decommissioned in 2018. “With the Chalk River’s shutdown and others ageing, shortage in supplies is imminent. The preference is, therefore, for alternative routes of production, like the particle accelerator route,” D. K. Srivastava, director of VECC, told IANS.

Srivastava said at ANURIB, a next-generation nuclear research facility in Kolkata’s Rajarhat neighbourhood, an accelerator-based process using rare or radioactive ion beams (RIBs) can be harnessed to tackle the shortage of valuable radio-isotopes such as molybdenum. In fact, ANURIB will be one of the world’s few establishments where RIB as well as stable isotope beams (SIB) will be available, he added.

Planned in two phases, ANURIB, funded by India’s Department of Atomic Energy, would roughly need around Rs 900 crore ($145 million) and 12 years for completion, said Srivastava. It would begin operations in 2019, at the end of the first phase. A high-power state-of-the-art superconducting electron accelerator, the source of the ion beams, is currently being developed in collaboration with TRIUMF, Canada. The RIBs are a new road to understand the universe, said Alok Chakrabarti, VECC’s associate director for accelerators.

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