When research radiates beyond the lab
With experience ranging from cancer therapy to combatting COVID-19, meet Marco Silari of the radiation protection group in the latest of our Knowledge Transfer spotlight series
“I am an applied physicist; I like to see research leading to real-world applications.” Marco Silari, section leader for special projects in the radiation protection group (HSE-RP), is no stranger to the knowledge-transfer process.
Before arriving at CERN in 1996, he worked for 12 years for the National Research Council of Italy. There, from 1991 until 1995, he was the project leader for a feasibility study led by the TERA Foundation, which focused on the development of a clinical centre for the treatment of tumours with both ions and protons. The work resulted in the National Centre of Oncological Hadron Therapy (CNAO), the first dual-ion facility in Italy for ion cancer therapy. “CNAO was founded many years after I left, but it was based on a lot of things from that study,” Marco explains.
Today at CERN, he leads the special projects section of the HSE-RP group. Approximately two-thirds of the section’s activities relate to detector R&D and one-third to radiological clearance projects.
His first KT-funded project was B-RAD: a detector technology for radiation safety in strong magnetic fields. The original prototype was developed in collaboration with Politecnico di Milano for use at CERN, and the project’s aim was to make a pre-industrial version of the device that could also be used in other domains, such as radiation surveys for Positron Emission Tomography–Magnetic Resonance Imaging (PET–MRI). His involvement in this project helped him realise that, in his words: “There’s a very big step from the lab to the market.” Indeed, the device had to go through several iterations before it was ready to be sold commercially.
These efforts paid off: in 2015, B-RAD was successfully licensed to an Italian company, ELSE NUCLEAR, and can now perform gamma dose rate and gamma spectrometry measurements, with ongoing developments for measurements of surface contamination and neutron dose rate. “B-RAD became much more than what was originally planned.”
He has also worked on several other projects funded by the Knowledge Transfer (KT) Fund and Medical Applications (MA) Budget, including GEMPix – a detector combining GEMs and the Timepix ASIC – and RaDoM – a radon gas-detection technology, which has been licensed to a Swiss start-up company, BAQ.
More recently, Marco has been involved in the CERN against COVID-19 task force, exploring whether ionising radiation can be used for the sterilisation of medical equipment – just one of the many different ways in which CERN is helping during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He encourages others to consider applications of their work outside of high-energy physics, while stressing that they should not assume that they need to have invented something revolutionary for it to be marketable: “Very often, inventions are improvements of existing things. Innovations are not always born out of radically new ideas.” He also highlights the support provided by the KT group, particularly in advising where to go and who to contact. “If anyone would like to see their development at CERN taken into the real world they should collaborate with KT. It is very difficult to do it alone.”