International gathering at UH examines top computer code

12/20/04

FLUKA© holds keys to use of radiation in space exploration, cancer treatment

HOUSTON, Dec. 20, 2004 – Don't let the odd name fool you – FLUKA© is serious stuff. It's a computer program used by physicists to simulate the effects of various forms of radiation as it passes through things.

A course on FLUKA, one of the top radiation transport computer codes in the world, is coming to the University of Houston Jan. 10-14, 2005.

Called a Monte Carlo Radiation Transport Code because of how it uses random numbers – like rolls of the dice – to simulate the statistical effects of radiation transport, FLUKA has applications in the aerospace and health industries. This conference marks only the second time that a formal FLUKA course has been held. Its architects will be at UH in the Texas Learning and Computation Center in Philip G. Hoffman Hall.

"Our environment is constantly being bombarded by radiation – billions of particles that span the spectrum in energy from those that are unable to penetrate the skin to those that are capable of penetrating miles of rock," said Lawrence S. Pinsky, chairman of the department of physics at UH and organizer of the five-day FLUKA course. "While most of the radiation in our everyday environment is something that our bodies have learned to live with, special conditions such as exposure to medical diagnostic and therapeutic uses or industrial and research uses are situations where care has to be taken to understand the effects and minimize exposures with shielding where it is appropriate."

FLUKA works by simulating a particular environment in great detail. For example, full-body CT scans are used to assemble very precise models of the entire human body. Researchers use the laws of modern physics to follow the path of particles in computer simulations, predicting the distribution of how these particles interact with the matter they encounter.

Another medical application of FLUKA is the planning and evaluation of radiation therapy for the treatment of tumors.

"Not only can FLUKA be used to determine the therapeutic dose delivered to the tissue of interest in the body, but it also can be used to assess the collateral exposure to the surrounding tissue, so that treatment plans can be optimized," Pinsky said.

One of the greatest challenges facing researchers is to protect astronauts from the radiation environment in space.

"At the surface of the Earth, we are protected from the most harmful sources of cosmic radiation by the effects of the Earth's magnetic field and the thickness of our atmosphere," Pinsky said. "In space beyond the Earth's atmosphere, the radiation environment is significantly more intense."

As human space exploration ventures farther from Earth for longer periods, stronger and lighter shielding materials for spacecraft must be developed to protect astronauts from the harmful effects of this radiation. To give shielding recommendations, certain calculations must be employed. These shielding calculations also can be used for nuclear reactors and accelerators, and FLUKA is the most widely used and trusted computer code to do this.

Along with UH and NASA, the course is being sponsored by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which is the world's largest particle physics lab where physicists go to explore the make up of matter and forces holding it together, and the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN), the Italian funding agency for nuclear physics.

Physicist Johann Ranft at the University of Leipzig in Germany originally developed FLUKA in the 1960s while he was working with CERN. By the late 1980s, the code had evolved through two generations, and Ranft turned over the continuing development and modernization of the code to a group of physicists at the INFN, who work with Alfredo Ferrari, who also is a senior physicist at CERN. The present version of FLUKA is the product of this team of authors.

Following the course held at UH, FLUKA's source code will be available for the first time to scientists under a special license agreement between CERN and INFN. CERN has officially recognized FLUKA as a CERN-supported code and is now supplying support for manpower to continue the development of the code into the future.

In an ongoing collaboration between UH and NASA, with the support of UH's Dave Criswell, director of the Institute for Space System Operations, UH will provide a version of FLUKA to NASA for use in simulating the space radiation environment inside spacecraft, on the moon and on the surface of Mars.

"These modified codes will be used to help design the shielding materials used to construct the spacecraft that will carry men and women back to the moon and on to Mars," Pinsky said.

Last January, President Bush mentioned the effects of space radiation as one of the crucial problems that has to be overcome for the progress of these types of future projects. UH's ongoing collaborations with NASA and the architects of FLUKA are vital for this success.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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