OPAL reactor fingerprints Aboriginal ochre

A Flinders University chemist is using Australia’s OPAL research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney to investigate ancient Aboriginal Australian society.

Using the technique called neutron activation analysis, Dr Rachel Popelka-Filcoff can “geochemically fingerprint” Aboriginal ochre pigments from different locations, archaeological sites and artefacts.

Applying nuclear power to research
Rachel Popelka-Filcoff can trace the cultural use of ochre using Australia’s research reactor. Credit: Ashton Claridge, Flinders Media
As the geochemical composition of ochre varies with location, she can correlate each sample with its site of origin, gaining information on cultural practices, travel and exchange patterns, and the relationship of Aboriginal people to the landscape. “Ochre pigments are highly significant in Aboriginal culture,” says Rachel. “Cultural expression often requires a specific pigment. Applying ochre to an object such as a spear can transform both its colour and its cultural meaning.”

Dr Roman Dronov, also from Flinders, is using the reactor to study the formation of bacterial protein layers. He is applying what he finds to constructing a new type of biosensor based on these layers and porous silicon. These highly sensitive devices can rapidly detect trace amounts of molecules, such as environmental poisons and markers of disease—a great improvement on traditional analytical methods.

“Using such biosensors in point-of-care health settings hastens disease detection and improves disease management,” says Roman. “There is large demand for robust and cost-efficient biosensor solutions.”

Rachel and Roman are Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering Inc. Research Fellows for 2011, the first researchers from South Australia to be awarded the honour. Their fellowship gives them access to the research facilities of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, such as OPAL.

Photo: Rachel Popelka-Filcoff can trace the cultural use of ochre using Australia’s research reactor
Credit: Ashton Claridge, Flinders Media

School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Flinders University, Peter Gill, peter.gill@flinders.edu.au