A marvel of precision: MedAustron

MedAustron, which is currently being built in Austria, will be one of the most advanced centres for ion beam therapy and research in Europe. It is based on the same design as the Italian National Centre for Oncological Hadrontherapy (CNAO), which in turn is based on the CERN-led Proton Ion Medical Machine Study (PIMMS). MedAustron should welcome its first patient at the end of 2015.


Layout of the MedAustron accelerator complex. 

With three ion-sources, a linac, a synchrotron and four irradiation rooms (see picture), MedAustron is a huge accelerator complex. Among other equipment, it comprises 300 magnets of 30 different types, all designed at CERN but produced at different sites: “We are working with five main suppliers from Europe and Russia,” explains Thomas Zickler, leader of the MedAustron magnet group. “All the magnets come to CERN to undergo a series of strict acceptance tests.” From the interfaces, to the electrical insulation, the cooling and interlock performance… everything is carefully checked to ensure that each magnet complies perfectly with the design.

 “A lot of CERN experts are currently working on the project in close collaboration with Austrian physicists and engineers,” explains Marco Buzio, a senior magnet engineer at CERN. “Our MedAustron colleagues can also use our test station, which is a unique facility in Europe, and learn how these magnets behave.” The MedAustron project has also been a golden opportunity for CERN to develop new high-performance test and measurement equipment, which is turning out to be extremely relevant to other projects.

Another phase of tests includes magnetic measurements. “Some of the magnets are tested in industry, but the most critical and complicated measurements are performed at CERN, which include all pre-series magnets as well as the bending dipoles - all in all, about 150 magnets,” adds Giancarlo Golluccio, a PhD engineer for MedAustron. “Once the magnets meet all our expectations, they are sent to Austria where they are installed.”

“We pay particular attention to the dynamics of the magnetic field, as it is modulated to match the ever-changing beam energy,” emphasises Marco Buzio. “Such a machine has to be cycled as fast as possible to minimise the impact on patient treatment plans. The beam control accuracy also has to be extremely high as it needs to target the tumour very precisely.” To ensure very high availability, everything has to be perfect right from the start: “All the steel used for the magnets – which represents 700 tonnes of electrical low-carbon steel – comes from the same Austrian supplier,” adds Thomas Zickler. “We then distribute it to all the manufacturers. This way, we ensure that all the magnets are made of the same high-quality material.”

The first magnets were installed at MedAustron a few weeks ago (see "The MedAustron project: an example of large-scale technology transfer"). If all goes well, the injector and the synchrotron should be completed and commissioned by the end of the year. By 2014, the first proton beam will reach one of the irradiation rooms, which will allow the first patient to be treated there by the end of 2015.

by Anaïs Schaeffer