“We are building a small transportable accelerator that will make PIXE analysis widely accessible” Maurizio Vretenar

By Dirk Vanduffel - Wednesday, May 17, 2017
“We are building a small transportable accelerator that will make PIXE analysis widely accessible” Maurizio Vretenar

Proton Induced X-ray Emission (PIXE) is routinely used in the art world to help date and authenticate works. Up until now, it has come at a high cost and required the use of bulky particle accelerator equipment that cannot be moved outside of the laboratory.

“We are building a small transportable accelerator that will make PIXE analysis widely accessible” Maurizio Vretenar

Proton Induced X-ray Emission (PIXE) is routinely used in the art world to help date and authenticate works. Up until now, it has come at a high cost and required the use of bulky particle accelerator equipment that cannot be moved outside of the laboratory. All that could be about to change as a new innovation from the European physics research centre, CERN, could lead to the creation of portable accelerators. The new technology could help to date larger artworks that cannot be moved as well as offering smaller museums the opportunity to asses their works. Artdependence spoke to CERN professor Maurizio Vretenar to find out more.

Dirk Vanduffel: Can you explain the new technology?

Maurizio Vretenar: We’ve been developing a ‘miniaturized’ version of the particle accelerator. That’s the low energy initial part of the accelerator. The original Linac4 injector requires 4 meters to reach 3 MeV energy. The new ‘artwork’ design reaches 2 MeV in 1.3 meters overall. The new design is intended to be lightweight and transportable, while Linac4 is heavy and can only be installed in a large laboratory. We were only able to look at miniaturizing the accelerator because we had already worked on developing he basic technology to create Linac4.

DV: What can the new accelerator do for the art world?

MV: The new portable accelerator cannot do anything new. We plan to use it to do a PIXE analysis of artworks. This is already being done in several places around the world. The AGLAE facility in the Louvre and the INFN laboratory in Florence use large electrostatic accelerators. They are expensive to run and require a specialised staff to operate and maintain them. We are building a small, transportable accelerator that will make this kind of analysis much more accessible. This means it can be used by smaller museums or for large artefacts that are not transportable. It could also be used to analyse restored areas on a large painting or fresco that cannot be transported to a laboratory.

The Linac4 accelerator Copyright: Robert Hradil, Monika Majer/ProStudio22.ch

The Linac4 accelerator Copyright: Robert Hradil, Monika Majer/ProStudio22.ch

RFQ Linac4 © 2010-2017 CERN, Photograph: Maximilien Brice 

DV: Could the accelerator be used to identify fakes?

MV: Yes. At the moment techniques for identifying fakes are reserved for specialised laboratories. When this technology is more widely available it will not eliminate fakes, but it will make counterfeiting a lot more difficult. One would need to not only imitate the style of the painter, but also the composition of his paint. 

DV: Why did CERN create this technology?

MV: CERN’s mandate is to advance particle physics, but we are conscious that many of our technologies can have applications outside of fundamental science. With the support of the CERN Council, we have a small program for medical applications and a small fund to promote innovative technologies with possible market potential. This new accelerator design was developed within the medical application program, and the new artwork prototype is supported by the innovation fund. Nevertheless, we are still looking for partners to put together the complete system that goes around the accelerator. 

Image on top: portrait of Maurizio Vretenar, courtesy CERN.

Dirk defines the overall policy of ArtDependence Magazine, in addition to conducting interviews. He specializes in valuation and auctioning.

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Luc Tuymans, Flemish Village 1995.  Collection MuHKA, Antwerp

Luc Tuymans, Flemish Village 1995. Collection MuHKA, Antwerp

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