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Every year, doctors around the world carry out tens of millions of procedures involving nuclear medicine. The most common medical radioisotope is technetium-99 which is used in some 30 million procedures per year; that's 80 per cent of the total.

Technetium-99 is short-lived with a half life of only 6 hours. So hospitals get it from the decay of the longer-lived molybdenum-99. This, in turn, must be made by bombarding uranium-235 with neutrons and separating mo-99 from the numerous fission products.

This is a difficult and dangerous procedure which is possible in only a handful of nuclear facilities around the world. That makes the supply of these essential medicines hugely expensive and extremely fragile.

Indeed, when the Chalk River nuclear reactor in Ontario, Canada, shut down for emergency repairs in 2009, it turned out to be producing a large fraction of the world's technetium-99 supply. The result was a global shortage that lasted for months. Clearly new suppliers are needed.

Today, Hiroyasu Ejiri at Osaka University and S. Daté at the Japan Synchrotron Radiation Research Institute say there is an entirely new way to make nuclear medicine.

The idea is to stimulate nuclear reactions using powerful laser beams. At a specific frequency, these beams cause a nucleus to resonate violently, triggering the nuclear reaction and effectively shaking it apart. And since almost all the photons trigger a reaction, this process can be close to 100 per cent efficient.

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Category: Science