Nuclear power is not only used to produce energy. From its discovery many applications have been developed in other fields. Perhaps one of the lesser known ones is the restoration and conservation of works of art.
Its main advantage is that it can be applied to a wide range of materials, and these can be analyzed in a very non-invasive way with minimal damage.
Study of the artistic composition and technique and much more
The most common technique is known as X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF). It involves shooting secondary (fluorescent) X-rays, which are characteristic of a material previously "bombarded" with high-energy X-rays or Gamma rays. This way the electrons' surface is destabilized and they are forced to produce radiation. Since Radiation is different for each chemical element, this technique can help to establish which chemical elements are present in the sample.
Nuclear techniques make it possible to study the composition of a sample and the artist's technique, determine its authorship or detect forgeries.
This technique presents the great advantage that it may be applied with a small gun-shaped device, which facilitates its transport and can be used on site.
This way, for instance, it is possible to study the distribution of the individual pigments in a painting. This makes it possible to determine its authorship (which helps to detect forgeries), and to conduct studies to avoid or prevent the degradation processes in pigments. The XRF technique detects the existence of harmful elements that have degradated the painting and eliminates it.
It can also be used to repair and restore images from hidden paintings (that were covered with other paintings). XRF can reveal the existence of these hidden paintings by measuring the concentration of chemical elements on the surface, both on the painting that is in view and the one hidden underneath. This way it is possible to study the hidden painting in a non-invasive way.
The information offered by this technique is very important: it can help to analyze or compare the artist's technique and decisions made during its creation, to detect the presence of original layers of paint with the interventions of restoration or evaluate their state of conservation.
Cleaning and disinfecting
Time and exposition to the elements cause the attack of bacteria, fungi, mold and insects. Radiation techniques can be used to restore books, furniture, musical instruments, sculptures, paintings, etcetera.
Ionizing radiations can disinfect and clean historic artifacts that have suffered harm from parasites and other eroding agents.
Radiation techniques make it possible to restore furniture, books, musical instruments, sculptures or paintings
The technique consists in transferring energy to the microorganisms that live inside the object without harming the object itself.
Ionizing radiation uses different levels of radiation intensity depending on the treatment of the object in question. For example, when the damage has been made by insects such as parasites a lower dose is used. For mold, however, the dose is higher. The reason for this is that the more complex the ADN structure is the more vulnerable it is to Gamma rays.
This is how a wall with wooden religious icons from the 19th Century with an insect infectation was disinfected in Romania. In Brazil, a Peruvian painting from the 17th Century that was covered in mold was successfully restored. This technique was also used to sterilize the wall paintings in some Egyptian tombs colonized by parasites.
Fossils and mummies can be disinfected too. In fact, this technique was successfully applied for the first time in 1977 to disinfect the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses II in Egypt, and in 2010 to neutralize the germs that had infected a 50,000 year-old mammoth found in Siberia.
Sources: OIEA, Foro Nuclear