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by TIM last modified Apr 03, 2015 07:30 PM

Development of the LAFARA underground

laboratory of Ferrières, French Pyrénées



The LAFARA underground laboratory was created in 2007 and is among the three underground laboratories existing in France. Two gamma spectrometers are now placed in the tunnel of Ferrières, French Pyrénées. The germanium detectors are protected by 85 m of rock, which allow us to reduce the background associated with the cosmic rays and thus, to quantify the ultra-low levels of radioactivity present in our environmental samples. Analyses are performed for scientists at LEGOS and at the Observatoire Midi Pyrénéees (OMP, Toulouse) as well as for scientists from other laboratories in France or abroad. 

Scientific Rationale

The use of low background gamma-ray spectrometry has increased in the past 20 years. The detection of low radioactivity levels is indeed needed in various fields, including environmental sciences, fundamental physics, control of drinking water and food, surveillance of nuclear activity etc… Regarding applications in earth sciences, both anthropogenic and natural radionuclides can be used as tracers in the marine and terrestrial environments. The decay of the radionuclides also provides the opportunity to use them as chronometers and dating tools. A large variety of half-lives allows us to cover a wide range of time scales (e.g. from hour to thousands years). However, the levels of radioactivity present in our environmental samples are often small (diluted media). Their analysis thus requires sensitive detectors and a very low background. Among the prerequisite required to conduct low background gamma-ray spectrometry, one can list the following points: (i) the construction materials of the detector and shield need to be carefully selected, (ii) the radon activity in the air near the detector needs to be as low as possible and (iii) the flux of cosmic muons should be reduced by placing the detectors in underground conditions. The rock cover above the detector thus constitutes a passive shield for cosmic radiation. The LAFARA underground laboratory located in the tunnel of Ferrières in the French Pyrénées was thus created in 2007.


Description of the facility

Two germanium spectrometers are currently running at the underground laboratory of Ferrières. The first spectrometer is a well-type, high efficiency, high purity germanium detector manufactured using selected materials. The volume of the germanium crystal is 280 cm3 (equivalent to 1.5 kg of germanium). The diameter and depth of the well are 15 mm and 50 mm, respectively. The second detector is a recent spectrometer designed by ORTEC/AMETEK that we purchased in year 2011 (FEDER funds). This detector is a semi-planar, p-point contact, detector (PROFILE-FX series). The high purity germanium crystal has a diameter of 85 mm and a thickness of 33.2 mm, with a volume of 183 cm3 (0.97 kg of germanium).

The LAFARA underground laboratory is specially designed to analyze samples automatically. This is because (i) the two germanium spectrometers are located at 100 km from our home laboratory in Toulouse and (ii) no technician stays there permanently. The spectrometers are thus equipped with autosamplers and systems that can fill liquid nitrogen automatically. Additionally, specific equipment is installed in the underground laboratory to ensure the remote functioning of the detectors at a distance (webcam ; connexion to the computer and instruments through VNC). The description of the facility can be found in van Beek et al.(2013).



- Evrard O., van Beek P., Gateuille D., Pont V., Lefèvre I., Lansard B., P. Bonté, 2012. Evidence of the radioactive fallout in France due to the Fukushima nuclear accident, Journal of Environmental Radioactivity 114, Volume spécial Fukushima, 54-60.

- van Beek P., Souhaut M., Lansard B., Bourquin M., Reyss J-L., Jean P., von Ballmoos P., 2013. LAFARA : A new underground laboratory in the French Pyrénées for low-background gamma spectrometry, Journal of Environmental Radioactivity 116, 152-158.

Participants: Pieter van Beek, Marc Souhaut


LEGOS : Laboratoire d'Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales (Toulouse)

IRAP: Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie.



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