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GNS radiocarbon specialist wins top science award - 06/10/1998

A scientist who played a leading role in building the Southern Hemisphere's first accelerator mass spectrometer has won New Zealand's top science award.

Rodger Sparks, manager of the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory at the Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences Limited in Lower Hutt, was awarded the Marsden Medal for "outstanding service to science'' this week.

The medal is awarded annually by the New Zealand Association of Scientists and is regarded as one of New Zealand's highest science accolades.

Plans to bring a particle accelerator to New Zealand were set in place in the late 1970s. But the tragic death of the project leader, Dr Graham McCallum, in a mountaineering accident suddenly saw Dr Sparks having to take charge of the project.

In 1981 Dr Sparks, a nuclear physicist, led a group of scientists who reassembled a particle accelerator from six container-loads of pieces brought back from Australia. At the time it was regarded as one of the largest and most technically challenging projects ever undertaken by New Zealand scientists.

He and a small team of helpers took the large instrument apart and labelled thousands of parts ranging from nuts and bolts to sections weighing several tonnes. Back in Lower Hutt they rebuilt the accelerator referring to an illustrated manual which they compiled as they disassembled the instrument at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Dr Sparks' skills as a nuclear scientist and accelerator technologist meant that in the early 1980s New Zealand became one of only a handful of countries in the world to benefit from this advanced technology.

The facility, which still operates in the Lower Hutt laboratory of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, opened the door to a wide range of new research opportunities and commercial services.

It increased the versatility of the radiocarbon technique allowing it to be used in more than a dozen disciplines and industries. These include fisheries, agriculture, geology, oceanography, archaeology, anthropology, climate studies, and authentication of artworks for museums and art dealers.

The facility has also enabled radiocarbon dating to be applied to extremely small samples - about 1 milligram of carbon. This has increased the sensitivity of measurements by a factor of 1000 over conventional radiocarbon techniques.

Dr Sparks has blended his technical and scientific knowledge with a keen appreciation of the diverse needs of scientists and clients from many different industries. As a result, his team has built a worldwide reputation that sees clients choosing the Rafter Laboratory ahead of more expensively equipped laboratories in other parts of the world.

The Rafter Laboratory is known for producing consistently good radiocarbon dating results with faster turnaround times than many similar facilities.

Scientists visiting from overseas find it hard to believe that Dr Sparks' team, with an extremely modest budget, have been able to match the performance of other radiocarbon laboratories with access to greater resources.

One of the early applications of the facility was measuring the concentration of carbon-14 in atmospheric methane. Results helped to change thinking on the influence of fossil fuels in global climate change.

Another big thrust in atmospheric research in coming years is expected to be analysis of carbon-14 in carbon monoxide, and the Rafter Laboratory is one of the few facilities in the world able to make these measurements.

The world-class facility has given many New Zealand scientists the opportunity to achieve results ahead of the rest of the world.

Dr Sparks was educated at St Patrick's College in Wellington, Victoria University, and gained a PhD at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands.

John Callan
Communications Manager
Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences Limited
Ph: 04-570-1444 (w)