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Study Suggests a Polymer Composite Could Serve as Lighter, Non-Toxic Radiation Shielding

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For Immediate Release

A new study from researchers at North Carolina State University suggests that a material consisting of a polymer compound embedded with bismuth trioxide particles holds tremendous potential for replacing conventional radiation shielding materials, such as lead.

The bismuth trioxide compound is lightweight, effective at shielding against ionizing radiation such as gamma rays, and can be manufactured quickly – making it a promising material for use in applications such as space exploration, medical imaging and radiation therapy.

“Traditional radiation shielding materials, like lead, are often expensive, heavy and toxic to human health and the environment,” says Ge Yang, an assistant professor of nuclear engineering at NC State and corresponding author of a paper on the work. “This proof-of-concept study shows that a bismuth trioxide compound could serve as effective radiation shielding, while mitigating the drawbacks associated with traditional shielding materials.”

In the new study, researchers demonstrated that they could create the compound using a curing method that relies on ultraviolet (UV) light – rather than relying on time-consuming high-temperature techniques.

“Using the UV curing method, we were able to create the compound on the order of minutes at room temperature – which holds potential for the rapid manufacturing of radiation shielding materials,” Yang says. “This is an important point because thermal polymerization, a frequently used method for making polymer compounds, often relies on high temperatures and can take hours or even days to complete. The UV curing method is both faster and less expensive.”

Using the UV curing method, the researchers created samples of the polymer compound that include as much as 44% bismuth trioxide by weight. The researchers then tested the samples to determine the material’s mechanical properties and whether it could effectively shield against ionizing radiation.

“This is foundational work,” Yang says. “We have determined that the compound is effective at shielding gamma rays, is lightweight and is strong. We are working to further optimize this technique to get the best performance from the material.

“We are excited about finding a novel radiation shielding material that works this well, is this light, and can be manufactured this quickly.”

The paper, “Gamma radiation shielding properties of poly (methyl methacrylate) / Bi2O3 composites,” is published in the journal Nuclear Engineering and Technology. First author of the paper is Da Cao, a Ph.D. student at NC State. The paper was co-authored by Mohamed Bourham, Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor of Nuclear Engineering at NC State; and by Dan Moneghan, a Ph.D. student at NC State.

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Gamma radiation shielding properties of poly (methyl methacrylate) / Bi2O3 composites”

Authors: Da Cao, Yang Ge, Mohamed Bourham and Dan Moneghan, North Carolina State University

Published: April 29, Nuclear Engineering and Technology

DOI: 10.1016/j.net.2020.04.026

Abstract: This work investigated the gamma-ray shielding performance, and the physical and mechanical properties of poly (methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) composites embedded with 0–44.0 wt% bismuth trioxide (Bi2O3) fabricated by the fast ultraviolet (UV) curing method. The results showed that the addition of Bi2O3 had significantly improved the gamma shielding ability of PMMA composites. Linear Mass attenuation coefficient and half-value layer were examined using five gamma sources (Cs-137, Ba-133, Cd-109, Co-57 and Co-60). The high loading of Bi2O3 in the PMMA samples improved the micro-hardness to nearly seven times that of the pure PMMA. With these enhancements, it was demonstrated that PMMA/ Bi2O3 composites are promising gamma shielding materials. Furthermore, the fast UV curing exerts its great potential in significantly shortening the production cycle of shielding material to enable rapid manufacturing.

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