Robust centre

Print edition : May 04, 2007

Inside the research reactor Dhruva at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Trombay.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre defies the technology-denial regimes of the West by developing a vast array of technologies.

THE Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), which celebrated its golden jubilee in 2006-07, is synonymous with cutting-edge technology, developed in-house. The technology-denial regimes of the West have only spurred BARC scientists to outdo themselves and come up with an array of technologies, which are the envy of scientists the world over.

BARC has developed supercomputers used in a variety of applications, such as tsunami modelling, robots that handle high-level radioactive waste, state-of-the-art machines that insert or pull out fuel rods in operating nuclear reactors, "tube walkers" equipped with a camera to "walk like a caterpillar" inside coolant pipes to detect degradation, smart cars for remote survey and inspection, Bhabhatron cobalt therapy machines for cancer treatment, impedance cardiovasograph, and many critical facilities for reactor development that the outside world will never know of.

"Whatever human hands can do, servo-manipulators [called master-slave manipulators, or MSMs] can also do. They can pour juice from one glass tumbler into another. They can light a matchstick. They can even thread a needle," says Manjit Singh, Associate Director, Design, Manufacturing and Automation Group, BARC. He is also the Head, Division of Remote-Handling and Robotics (DRHR). He takes us around the big hall that houses the DRHR, where several mechanical and electrical servo MSMs with various ranges and payloads are ready to do the master's bidding.

Scores of MSMs, designed and developed by the DRHR, are in use in various highly radioactive "hot cells" of the Waste Immobilisation Plant (WIP), one of the most sophisticated facilities at BARC where spent fuel from the reactors is converted into glass by melting. An MSM has two arms: the slave arm that is usually located in the hot cell and the master arm in the control station. "When the operator grasps and manipulates the master, the motion of his hand is reproduced in the slave arm, performing the necessary task," said K. Jayarajan, Head of the Tele-manipulator Section, DRHR.

We stand outside one such "hot cell", a room where radioactive waste is handled and is, therefore, heavily shielded by a 1.5-metre-thick concrete wall, embedded with windows of specially made glass. As we watch, the two remote-controlled hands of the MSM swing into action inside the hot cell. They pour the vitrified waste dexterously into a stainless steel canister, move the canister around, settle a lid on it and weld the lid to the canister. The canister then rolls out.

"The challenge in the entire process of vitrification of spent fuel is that you have to operate behind a thick wall. Contact maintenance or contact operation is not possible because of high radiation in the cells. Everything is remote-controlled," explained S.D. Mishra, Director, Nuclear Recyling Group.

The WIP's philosophy is to recover, recycle and create wealth from liquid, solid and gaseous waste. The facility receives waste generated during the reprocessing of spent fuel at the research reactors at BARC and research laboratories and hospitals that use radiation sources. The WIP has recovered useful material such as nitric acid and solvents from the waste, said Kanwar Raj, Head of the Waste Management Division. The high-level liquid waste is converted into glass using a series of steps. The glass is poured into canisters, where it solidifies slowly. Three such canisters are kept in a stainless steel container, or overpack. These overpacks are sent to an interim storage facility at Tarapur where they are kept in an air-cooled vault for 30 years. They are finally disposed in deep geological repositories.

India is one of the six countries that have mastered this vitrification technology. Another vitrification plant would be commissioned at Kalpakkam, Kanwar Raj said.

The DRHR has also developed a mobile robot called Smartcar, for remote survey and inspection. The car navigates smartly on three wheels and is equipped with ultrasonic sensors and wireless communication sets.

Another remote-controlled vehicle performs the amazing job of disposing of 300-odd boxes containing 13,000 fuses of anti-tank mines, for the Ordnance Factory at Khamaria in Jabalpur, Manjit Singh said. The DRHR developed a six-wheeled vehicle that housed remote-controlled arms (manipulator), closed circuit television cameras and communication devices. The control station was situated at a safe distance from the vehicle's path. The operator controlled the vehicle and the manipulator and received the feedback through CCTV cameras. The manipulator lifted each box weighing 30 kg, one at a time, from the storage room to the disposal site, opened the box by removing its spring clip and disposed of the fuses by burning them.

The swimming-pool-type reactor, Apsara, at BARC.-V.V .KRISHNAN

Another product from the DRHR stable is an automated laser-cutting machine for chopping spent fuel bundles from pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) and dissolving them in nitric acid as part of fuel reprocessing.

The new supercomputing facility, with an array of BARC-developed supercomputers, is evidence of the BARC's muscle. According to G.P. Srivastava, Director, Electronics and Instrumentation Group, BARC reached a significant milestone in supercomputing by developing the Anupam parallel processing system, attaining the highest computing performance of 365 gigaflops. In 2005, BARC entered the era of teraflop computing with the development of Anupam-Ameya supercomputer, which clocked 1.73 teraflop a second. This has the highest speed in the country. "Computer activity at BARC hinges on the speed of the computer. About 4,000 scientists demand high-speed computing for various applications. Today, we have high-speed computers reaching teraflops in a second," explained Srivastava. Alhad G. Apte, Head of the Computer Division, said, "So far BARC has developed 16 different Anupam models, and about 36 Anupam systems are in regular use in many leading educational and research institutions in India."

With grid computing becoming popular worldwide enabling sharing of the capacity of the computers located at different places, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has a grid now. For instance, BARC, the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research at Kalpakkam, the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology in Indore and the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre in Kolkata are connected through a cluster of computers, enabling scientists to share information. Grid computing has been extended to facilitate international cooperation. "BARC's Anupam-Ameya has been connected to CERN [the European Centre for Nuclear Research], which is building a Large Hadron Collider [LHC] - the largest accelerator in the world, near Geneva. "CERN is meeting the computing challenge of the LHC by using grid-computing technology with the objective of exploiting the widely dispersed supercomputers in various countries," Srivastava said.

The computer division has developed a hand-scan biometric system (HSBC) for controlling the access to the supercomputing facility and its computers. Apte said, "This is unique in the world because nobody has worked on this technology. We have a patent on this."

As if to demonstrate its versatility, BARC has developed an Instrumented Pipe Inspection Gauge (IPIG), a device that travels inside buried oil pipelines to monitor the health of the pipe metal. The device, which is 3.2 m long with several couplings, has a diameter of 12 inches. The IPIG travels with the propelling force of the oil that is being pumped through the pipeline. The equipment can traverse the entire length of the pipeline, which can be typically 150-250 km. When the equipment travels, normal pumping operations are not affected. The device has been tested on the pipelines of the Indian Oil Corporation.

The equipment has special sensors to provide information on the metal loss of the pipe. S. Bhattacharya, Head of the Control and Instrumentation Unit of BARC, said it detected the defects by sensing the change in the magnetic flux near the pipe wall under the influence of an applied magnetic field. While travelling in the pipeline, it continuously collects information on the thickness of the pipeline. This information is stored in a computer, which is an integral part of the IPIG. The data are retrieved and analysed. The equipment is designed to negotiate the bends in the pipeline.

The IPIG has a "magical" device called odometer, which measure distances. As the equipment travels in the pipeline, the odometer's wheels come into positive contact with the pipeline and as the wheels rotate, the distance travelled is measured.

The Refuelling Technology Division has developed complex fuelling machines for the 540-MWe PHWRs at Tarapur. The machines operate in a highly radioactive area, pulling out spent fuel rods and inserting new rods. "We will develop a fuelling machine for the AHWR [Advanced Heavy Water Reactor]. The prototype is getting ready," said R.G. Agarwal, Head of the Refuelling Technology Division. He described the fuelling machines as "one of the most complicated machines to be developed by BARC".

BARC has developed an instrument called rolling stock health analysis (Roshan), which can be fitted to a railway track to assess the health of the wheels of the train and their suspension. The device can pinpoint a particular wheel that has become weak. The device's online system transmits the data to the railway station downside or upside. It was not easy to develop this instrument because a lot of noise is generated when the train speeds along and it is difficult to pick up signals. This instrument has now become a permanent feature of the Konkan Railways.

The Biomedical Instrumentation Division has developed impedance cardiovasograph for estimating the peripheral blood flow and continuous monitoring of cardiac output, a blood pressure meter and a medical analyser.

The Crystal Technology Laboratory (CTL) is a state-of-the-art facility that received encouragement from Dr. R. Chidambaram, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Spectacularly beautiful single crystals are grown in the CTL. These single crystals are crucial to the development of modern science and technology and they find applications in lasers, microeletronics, medical scanning, communication and automation, Dr. S.C. Sabharwal, Head of the Spectroscopy Division, said. "At BARC, we have a programme to develop high purity silicone material for single crystal growth," he added.

Dr. Srikumar Banerjee, Director, BARC, said, "BARC has a culture of developing a complete technology... Today, we are developing different types of mass spectrometers, meeting not only our own requirements but we are in a position to supply them to different agencies. The Heavy Water Board essentially depends on the mass spectrometers produced here."

According to Banerjee, Bhabhatron is "an outstanding example" of medical equipment produced by BARC. These machines have features that are better than those of imported machines and yet their cost of production is half of that of the imported variety. BARC has developed digital X-rays, which have a potential for large-scale applications.

Banerjee said, "A digital X-ray which can be stored in a compact form on a CD or pen-drive has major advantages over the conventional X-ray film: one can process the image for contrast enhancement and significantly reduce the dose administered to a patient. We are trying to market them [digital X-rays] through transfer of technology to private entrepreneurs."

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