Nebraska-Brazil team selected by São Paulo Research Foundation for collaborative project funding

Nebraska’s Dr. Sudeep Banerjee (front left) will conduct laser-particle acceleration research with Dr. Nilson Vieira (right) of IPEN in São Paulo, Brazil under a new SPRINT award.
Nebraska’s Dr. Sudeep Banerjee (front left) will conduct laser-particle acceleration research with Dr. Nilson Vieira (right) of IPEN in São Paulo, Brazil under a new SPRINT award.

Most people are familiar with x-rays, whether used for producing image scans, treating cancer, or telescopes. But producing bright x-ray sources can be difficult and extremely expensive, especially for medical treatments. Through his recent São Paulo Researchers in International Collaboration (SPRINT) award, Nebraska’s Dr. Sudeep Banerjee is exploring an alternative source for x-rays using laser-particle acceleration with an international team in Brazil.

Banerjee, a research associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Nebraska’s Extreme Light Laboratory, will lead the research project with Dr. Nilson Vieira of Instituto de Pesquisas Energéticas e Nucleares (IPEN) in São Paulo, Brazil. The SPRINT award is a mobility program funded by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) in collaboration with institutions around the globe and promotes the engagement of international researchers with scientists in the state of São Paulo, Brazil.

“As a scientist, I see research as a global endeavor in which every human being can contribute with great ideas that benefit all of us,” Banerjee said. “I am excited to work with the people at IPEN. They are skilled, knowledgeable, and dedicated.”

According to Banerjee, the goal of the joint proposal is to find a method to overcome the limits of IPEN’s lower-power laser systems, conduct a series of electron-acceleration experiments, and use the results to guide laser-driven proton acceleration that is useful for medical therapy.

"Our work begins with electron acceleration since this is in some ways easier to do and the results will yield more important information on the physical mechanisms that can be subsequently applied to proton acceleration,” explained Banerjee. “It will build up a level of expertise that will be needed for follow-up work on proton acceleration.”

Electron acceleration occurs using a series of short, high-intensity laser pulses to accelerate electrons in the resulting plasma wave (cloud of charged particles) produced in the wake of the laser. As Banerjee said, the team at Nebraska's Extreme Light Laboratory is "one of the leaders worldwide in the area of electron acceleration," although the bulk of past research has focused on optical imaging and national security applications of laser-particle acceleration. The new project's medical applications for protontherapy is one reason Banerjee is looking forward to collaborating with IPEN.

"This research will be synergistic with our other efforts which all focus on the generation of high-energy electron beams and x-rays. The new area we propose to study is proton acceleration, which will further augment our capabilities and open up new areas of study," Banerjee said.

Although using proton acceleration and protontherapy aren’t new, Banerjee and Vieira's research could have important implications for the field. Instead of x-ray waves, protontherapy applies accelerated protons at high-energy levels to cancerous areas for treatment. This radiation treatment allows for a much deeper penetration in a tighter-controlled area that results in less radiation hitting the surrounding healthy cells. Initially, this treatment was used mostly for brain tumors and tumors close to vital organs, but is now being used to treat a much broader range of tumors, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer among others. Most facilities that employ this treatment operate cyclotron accelerators, which apply a series of alternating electromagnetic fields to generate a proton beam. However, these highly specialized facilities typically cost upwards of $200 million dollars, and none currently exist below the equator line. Utilizing lasers to create the proton beams will hopefully enable protontherapy devices to be produced more cheaply and in a portable device that can be housed in a hospital.

"Making bright x-ray sources is extremely difficult and expensive, and we think lasers offer a unique way to make controllable x-ray sources that can be used for research and medical applications like therapy," Banerjee said. "We hope with a new approach based on different targets and physical mechanisms, we will be successful in this endeavor."

Banerjee’s award marks the third straight year Nebraska has partnered with FAPESP by co-funding SPRINT projects. Under the SPRINT award, FAPESP and UNL each fund up to $10,000 per proposal per year, for a total of $20,000. Banerjee’s award is co-funded by Nebraska’s Office of Research and Economic Development and the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Previous SPRINT awards include six faculty members from various departments in the university’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR). In 2016, UNL signed an agreement with FAPESP to advance faculty research collaborations with the support of IANR’s Global Engagement team and the Agricultural Research Division. In addition to the SPRINT awards, this relationship has also led to UNL hosting the Brazil-USA Research Symposium “FAPESP Week” in September 2017.

The call for proposals invited research in many fields of knowledge, emphasizing science, agriculture, technology and engineering. Nebraska joins the following institutions in being funded for proposals: Texas A&M University and University of Missouri (United States); Cardiff University, Imperial College London, University of Bath, Queen’s University of Belfast and University of Surrey (United Kingdom); Carleton University and University of Toronto (Canada); Swinburne University of Technology (Australia); Cognitive Science and Technology Council of Iran-CSTC (Iran); Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique-FNRS (Belgium); and University of Münster (Germany).

For more information about the SPRINT awards or upcoming proposals, please contact Liana Calegare, IANR Global Engagement Senior Global Programs Manager, at