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Verma Scholar Nicolas Fedrigo’s TACU breakthrough

02 September 2022

In a radiochemistry research laboratory two floors beneath the Meson Hall Extension Service Annex, TRIUMF’s inaugural Verma Scholar Nicolas Fedrigo carefully lifts a transparent cassette into his fume hood and snaps it onto the brushed steel face of his latest project: the TRIUMF Automated Chemistry Unit (TACU).  

(image: the TRIUMF Automated Chemistry Unit (TACU)

The apparatus, a research-focused synthesis unit with configurable cassettes, is designed to streamline and automate key steps in medical radioisotope production. It’s about the size of a large toaster and fits snugly between a vortex mixer and a box of Kimwipes on the floor of the hood.

“Automating radioisotope production processes reduces the dose to our radiochemists and offers greater efficiency,” says Fedrigo. “The idea here was to design a versatile automated synthesis unit – dedicated cassettes can be assembled to suit the requirements of new processes.”

(image: Verma Scholar Nicolas Fedrigo and TACU)

TACU is Fedrigo’s latest design and engineering project but certainly not his first, and if he seems much more at ease in a research lab than the average third-year engineering student, it's for good reason. Still in university, Fedrigo has already accumulated an extensive track record of design and engineering work in biomedical science, both self-started and as part of research teams. In 2018, at just 17 years old, he took first place award at the 30th EU Contest for Young Scientists for his design for a tool that can prevent vertebral breaches in spinal reconstruction surgery. In 2019, he again took first place, this time on behalf of Team Canada in the Engineering category at the Taiwan International Science Fair.

Later in 2019, Fedrigo joined TRIUMF as part of the Young Engineers and Scientists (YES) Fellowship program, and worked alongside Accelerator Division’s teams to develop a distributor that could separate irradiated samples into shielded containers prior to characterization and processing, improving efficiency and safety for nuclear energy workers handling radiological species. Then, he joined TRIUMF again as a co-op student.

“I was thrilled when I returned as a co-op student because of how much I enjoyed the Fellowship and working with TRIUMF’s remarkable community,” said Fedrigo. “At the beginning of my term, I was most interested in the mechanical aspects of biomedical engineering. However, my supervisors Stuart McDiarmid and Paul Schaffer provided me with countless learning opportunities and support which allowed me to gain experience in various disciplines of engineering. This helped me to identify my aspiration for a career in mechatronics and automation.” 

(image: [from left] Stuart McDiarmid, Brooke O'Neil, Nicolas Fedrigo, Paul Schaffer)

“The TACU project is the culmination of TRIUMF’s experience in developing custom automated synthesis units but with an added layer of flexibility. We automated Brooke McNeil’s process for production and isolation of 132/135La, which resulted in an increased isolated product yield when compared to the manual process. We’re currently working towards automating more processes and manufacturing more TACU units.”

Fedrigo, who is completing his Bachelor of Applied Science with a specialization in Systems and Signals from the School of Biomedical Engineering at the University of British Columbia, is the first recipient of the newly established Vijay Verma Scholar Award. Founded with an endowment from TRIUMF emeritus Vijay Verma, the award builds on the Verma family’s decades’-long dedication to TRIUMF and its legacy of empowering student training and educational opportunities. It recognizes one outstanding undergraduate student per year working at the lab in one of the fields of engineering, project management, computer science, or life sciences.

For Verma, the opportunity to continue giving back to the TRIUMF community brings tremendous impact and personal satisfaction for him and his family.

“Over decades, our family has built deep ties with TRIUMF, and we are very pleased to be able to bring this initiative forward,” said Verma. “It is a true privilege to be able to support such talented, hard-working individuals in their work, which in turn serves to advance TRIUMF’s mission and bring untold benefit to Canada and our society. Further, we hope this work inspires others to consider giving back to the TRIUMF community, too. I join my family in congratulating Nicolas for all he has accomplished and wish him the best in his future endeavours – hopefully, we will see him back at TRIUMF again soon!”

(image: the TACU control panel)

Returning this week from the 18th Workshop on Targetry and Target Chemistry (WTTC18) in Whistler, BC, Fedrigo will continue to collaborate closely with his colleagues in Life Sciences as he finalizes his term and begins looking at his next steps.

Congratulations, Nicolas!