Nuclear Energy for Artwork


Prof. Monish Gunawardana,
International University of Management,

SINCE Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ruined by the atomic bombardments, the term “nuclear energy” typically creates a fear and hopelessness in our minds. However, as we discussed in our previous articles, nuclear energy could drive human development and bring happiness to our lives. Not many of our readers know that nuclear-based techniques are used to detect and restore world famous artworks and preserve them for generations to come.
Ageless artworks and artefacts in art galleries, museums or ancient cave paintings often experience damage from vandals or natural causes. Also, everyday, an average of one collection or one art gallery in the world, experiences fire damage. Usually, to remove the graffiti, stains or dirt from a painting, restoration scientists use chemical solvents. However, these chemical solutions are not always effective or safe.

New Life for Art
Nowadays, art conservators use atomic oxygen (an element form of oxygen) to restore artworks effectively. Atomic oxygen could be used to remove heavy deposits of dirt, or charring from a painting successfully. In 1996, two paintings of the St Alban`s Church in Cleveland Heights were spoiled by an arson fire, but the conventional restoration techniques were not helpful to restore them. Moreover, art conservators are very careful in using chemical solutions to repair an affected piece of artwork, as that could cause more damage to the artwork they intended to restore. Nevertheless, the researchers at the National Aeronautical Space Agency (NASA) restored it by atomic oxygen cleaning techniques.
In 1998, Andy Warhol’s famous painting, ‘Bathtub’, was damaged by a vandal’s lipstick-smudge during the party at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Again, NASA used atomic oxygen techniques to bring life back to that masterpiece.
Nuclear-based restoration techniques are safer than the conventional chemicals that can destroy the pigments of paintings; moreover, the atomic oxygen technique is environmentally friendly. Our readers and museum curators can obtain more information on this application sending an email to Bruce A. Banks at the NASA (bruce.a.banks @

X-ray Technique
Australian conservation scientist Dr Katharina Uhlir, used a nuclear-based portable instrument, known as X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy (XRF), belonging to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A PhD student in collaboration with researchers attached to the IAEA, invented this instrument. It is a very reliable analytical tool to test chemical composition and authenticity of an artwork. XRF is a testing instrument that uses X-rays to eradicate samples of materials, without harming the tested work of art.

in Austria
Some time ago, thieves removed the priceless artwork Saliera from the Seibersdorf museum. It is a solid gold salt container that is adorned by the Goddess of Earth and God of the Sea. First, thieves hid it under a bed for several years and later buried it in the ground. And there were some damages to the sculpture and the breast of the Earth Goddess had deep scratch marks.
The museum decided to use the nuclear- based restoration instrument – XRF – to restore the Saliera. As of today, this XRF technique has helped to study, enhance the quality, or restore the great masterpieces like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and David, Michael Angelo’s ‘Creation of Man’ and Cellini`s Perseus.

Nuclear Dating
Nuclear-based techniques could be used to measure the real age of prehistoric cave paintings, classical oil paintings, statues and the archeological remains. One of these techniques is Carbon-14 .The age of excavated materials such as potteries, wood, papyrus or animal hides were correctly dated by this method. For instance, the Dead Sea Scrolls, made out of leather, and the 5 000-year old artefacts in Mohondajaro (India) were dated by Carbon-14.
All plant-based materials such as paper, wood or paints contain Carbon-14, which is a radioactive element. Anyhow, over time, the radioactivity begins to decay.
For example, in 5 600 years, the radioactivity of the wood decays.
The decaying process gives a method of dating old artefacts or archeological excavations, by measuring the remaining Carbon-14 still present.

To restore or preserve a valuable artwork, like Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ or Michael Angelo’s ‘Creation of Man’, the restoration scientists need comprehensive information: the age and chemistry of the paints. They use optical and nuclear techniques such as Atomic Absorption Spectrometry [AAS] Micro-Raman Spectroscopy [MRS] and Carbon-14 [C14] as the artworks diagnostic tools. Besides that, as of today, the maintenance and preservation of artworks in many museums and art galleries use nuclear-based techniques.
For instance, the conservation department of the Art Institute of Chicago is well equipped with advanced diagnosis/restoration technologies like AAS and XRF.
The AAS can detect the measure of light absorbed by an artwork and in this way the concentration of chemical elements can be calculated. Also, this technique is employed to analyse rock samples collected from space missions.

Restoring Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa is a 16-century oil painting created by Leonardo da Vinci. And it is one of the most valuable paintings of the world. Her inviting gaze is often described as mystical and enigmatic. Presently it is housed at the Musee du Louvre in Paris.
It was stolen in 1911 and the thief kept it in his apartment for two years. In 1956, the painting was damaged when someone threw acid on it. Again, a young Bolivian damaged the Mona Lisa by throwing a rock at it.
Due to the constant interactions with the climate and other man-made damages the Mona Lisa was restored from time to time by conventional restoration methods.
In 2004, Canadian restoration scientists conducted a three-dimensional infrared scanning and discovered aging of the varnish on the painting.
After that, a team of international restoration scientists, using nuclear-based instruments such as XRF, AAS and Micro Raman Spectroscopy, gave a new life to this timeless beauty.
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (16th century)

Gifts for Humanity
The nuclear-based restoration and conservation technology preserves the aesthetic heritages of the human race.
Our great ancestors, since the Stone Age, began to register their imaginative thoughts on caves, stones, potteries and paintings. Like the Mona Lisa, the prehistoric cave paintings in Almeria in Spain and the Twyfelfontein San Cave paintings in Namibia are more than 20 000-year-old creations of our ancestors.
Unfortunately, these precious creations were damaged by natural causes, time or vandalism.
As they are the best fruits of our civilization, it is our duty to protect them.
Hence, we should exploit nuclear-based technology to preserve our priceless cultural legacies.


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