Reactor to reveal secrets of Indigenous art

rpopelka-filcoffTwo researchers from Flinders School of Chemical and Physical Sciences have been named the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering Inc (AINSE) Research Fellows for 2011.

It is the first time AINSE Fellowships have been awarded to researchers in South Australia and that two awards have gone to the one university.

The three-year fellowship will allow Dr Rachel Popelka-Filcoff and Dr Ramon Dronov to use the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s Lucas Heights facility to carry out aspects of their research.

Dr Popelka-Filcoff is conducting a comprehensive study of the elemental make-up of ochre, a naturally occurring iron oxide pigment that is widely used by Indigenous Australians, as part of an ongoing project with the South Australian Museum and Artlab Australia.

“Ochre is found on archaeological sites of Indigenous people, worldwide. However, in Australia, ochre has a great significance both on the artefacts and in cultural expression,” Dr Popelka-Filcoff said.

“Ochre from particular sites, because of its colour and crystallinity and other characteristics, may be sought only during certain times of the year for specific rituals such as coming-of-age ceremonies,” she said.

“Ochre also has a connotation with blood and death and Dreaming stories, because of its inherent colour.

“And there’s research to suggest that the use of ochre transforms an object. A spear has a certain meaning, but as soon as you apply a certain ochre to it, it also transforms its colour and its cultural meaning.”

Dr Popelka-Filcoff will use the Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) facilities at Lucas Heights to obtain a “geochemical fingerprint” of various ochre samples.
“We irradiate the sample in the reactor and, after irradiation, it undergoes radioactive decay, emitting delayed gamma-rays. These gamma-rays have a particular energy specific to a given element,” she said.

“Measuring the gamma-rays allows us to determine the concentrations of the elements we’re interested in, such as transition metals and rare earth elements.  These concentrations represent the geochemical signature of how the ochre was formed for a particular site.

“In theory, each one of these geochemical chemical fingerprints is different for each site, so we can build a database of these for known ones and then eventually to artefacts and objects, analyse them in the same way and trace them back to original sources.”

The analyses will help Dr Popelka-Filcoff trace some of ancient ochre-exchange routes.

“We know that people went to specific sites at specific times of the year to get this material and that it was exchanged between groups across the continent to maintain relationships between groups over the land as cultural dimension, rather than a commercial arrangement.”

Dr Roman Dronov’s research is focused on developing a new generation of optical biosensors, devices that can detect trace amounts of molecules including environmental toxins and disease biomarkers.

A scientific “canary in the coalmine”, biosensors are used in a range of settings from biomedical diagnostics, such as glucose monitoring in diabetes patients, to food quality monitoring and counter-terrorism.

Using neutron-based surface analysis, Dr Dronov will examine the way proteins organise themselves in porous silicon film used in optical biosensors.

“My goal is to develop a new simple approach to assemble proteins on porous films in a single-step process that offers high stability and reproducibility for applications in advanced optical biosensors,” Dr Dronov said.

“This will find practical uses in biomedical diagnostics and environmental monitoring and can be extended to applications in tissue engineering, drug delivery or biofuel cells,” he said.

“The biosensors’ high sensitivity and selectivity compared to classical analytical methods accompanied by high throughput, portability and energy efficiency promise substantially enhanced performance and economic benefit.

“Large market demand exists for robust and cost-efficient biosensor solutions and there are hence clear opportunities in this project for IP development and technology commercialisation.

“The use of biosensors in point-of-care settings can help to achieve earlier disease detection and better disease management.”

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