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Major science breakthrough in radiation detection could change port security

Robert Schwartz, physics graduate student at UMD and the lead author of the research paper

PortandTerminal.com, March 23, 2019

Physicists at the University of Maryland have announced the discovery of a powerful new method to detect radioactive material from a long distance.

The method is laser-based and astounding in its benefits for port security.

With additional engineering, advancements could be scaled up and used to scan trucks and shipping containers.

“The new technique can detect nuclear material even if it is shielded from even further away than existing methods – potentially as far away as the length of a football field”

Physicists at the University of Maryland (UMD) are behind the new technique which, with additional engineering advancements could be scaled up and used to scan trucks and shipping containers.

“Traditional detection methods rely on a radioactive decay particle interacting directly with a detector. All of these methods decline in sensitivity with distance,” said Robert Schwartz, a physics graduate student at UMD and the lead author of the research paper.

Detecting radioactive material from a distance remains a difficult technical challenge using current technologies. The new technique though can detect nuclear elements even if they are shielded and from even further away than existing methods. It uses an infrared laser beam to induce a phenomenon known as an electron avalanche breakdown, the signs of which can be picked up by a detector.

Radiation Portal Monitors

Radiation Portal Monitor

Currently, Radiation Portal Monitors (RPMs) are commonly used at ports to scan trucks, people and containers as they enter to look for radioactive material emanating from nuclear devices and potential dirty bombs.

RPMs are passive, non-intrusive detectors. The detectors that they use need to be close to the source of the radioactive material for them to accurately pick-up its presence.

The new technology announced at the University of Maryland may change all that. Ultimately, experts hope to scale the new detection process up to scan trucks and shipping containers from far greater (safer) distances than is currently possible.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Science Advances.

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