Materials Research – Historical Background

In the mid fifties the importance of nuclear science for South Africa was acknowledged. It was also accepted that the training and research facilities available to South African universities in this field was inadequate and students largely relied on overseas visits for research and training. Wide support from the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town for a nuclear research institute in the Western Cape lead to the formation of the Cape Nucleonic Society. In 1958 the establishment of such an institute was incorporated into a National programme for nuclear research in South Africa and a campaign for public support for capital requirements was initiated. Generous financial and moral support received from local authorities, local industries and from Government enabled the two Universities to establish an independent organization called the Southern Universities Nuclear Institute (SUNI), today known as the Van de Graaff Group. The Institute was formally created on the 29th of March 1961 when its Charter was signed. Its objectives as set out in the Memorandum of Associations where to provide, control, make available and operate facilities for research, development and education in all aspects of Nuclear Science, Nuclear Engineering and related fields, including Applied Radioactivity, Radiobiology and Radiochemistry, and to train technical, research and student personnel in all such fields.

On the 20th of May 1961, the Board of Governors decided to order a 6 MV Van de Graaff accelerator from High Voltage Engineering Corporation in Boston, USA. A year later the first permanent staff members took up their appointments, their initial task being the detailed planning of the Institute buildings. Building operations began on the 14th of January 1963, on a site at Faure, which was an ideal setting as it is half way between Cape Town and Stellenbosch Universities. The buildings where sufficiently complete to allow the immediate installation of the accelerator when it arrived on the 17th of September 1963. On the 11th of May 1964, the installed accelerator reached its full factory specifications and was formally accepted by the Board of Governors.

It was officially opened on November 3rd, 1965. Since then hundreds of students have received their training at SUNI and today some of our top Nuclear Physicists and Nuclear Chemist in the country have all passed through SUNI. The ever greater need for higher energies for nuclear research resulted in the decline in nuclear research at SUNI over the years and in 1977 the National Accelerator Centre (on site at SUNI) was established. This state-of-the-art separated-sector 200 MeV cyclotron is used for research and training in biophysics, atomic physics, radiobiology and nuclear physics. In 1988 SUNI was incorporated into the National Accelerator Center (NAC) and we became known as the Van de Graaff Group. 1999 saw a massive restructuring of the National Accelerator Centre and gave us the opportunity to re-evaluate its organizational structure. This led to the formation of the Materials Research Group. The name of the National Accelerator Centre was changed to iThemba LABS as stated in the Government Gazette No. 22880, Notice No. 1241 dated 30 November 2001. (picture vdggbw.jpeg 1965-1970).


The 6 MV Van de Graaff Accelerator accelerates light ions to energies between 0,5 and 20 MeV. The accelerator can also produce pulsed beams of particles, which makes it particularly useful for research with neutrons.

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