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University, Company Partner on Contraband Nuclear Detector

James Ryan with the NSPECT device (Kristi Donahue, Univ. of New Hampshire)

James Ryan with the NSPECT device (Kristi Donahue, Univ. of New Hampshire)

Researchers at University of New Hampshire in Durham and Michigan Aerospace Corporation in Ann Arbor have received a contract from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency to build an instrument to accurately detect illicit radioactive materials from a safe distance. The one-year contract of $303,000 calls for a realistic field test of the device in 2012.

The device is expected to detect nuclear materials located in shipping ports, train stations, truck stops or warehouses, that potentially could be used to make “dirty bombs” or go into a nuclear device itself. The portable detector — called the Neutron Spectroscope, or NSPECT — will be based on research conducted at UNH’s Space Science Center studying high-energy neutrons and gamma rays emanating from the sun and other astronomical objects.

Michigan Aerospace is an advanced engineering and products company specializing in remote sensing. The company is responsible for support engineering to turn the bench-top instrument into a rugged deployable device equipped with a graphical user interface and live video imaging capability.

NSPECT will have the capability to detect, image, and identify hazardous and dangerous nuclear materials, since they emit radiation similar to the neutrons and gamma rays found in space. Physicist James Ryan (pictured at top), UNH’s lead scientist on the project says this capability does not yet exist.

“What people have to do now is go into a building or a container and fish around in hopes of finding the source,” says Ryan. “The expertise that has been acquired over many years in the space program can now be brought to bear on this problem to better find and locate nuclear bomb-making material.”

NSPECT greatest contribution is expected to be in neutron detection.  Neutrons by their nature are resistant to detection and defy easy imaging. The neutron camera on NSPECT records every neutron that interacts with the instrument and tags each one individually based on what direction that neutron came from. The neutrons are then collected and assembled with software developed at UNH that emerges into a coherent image like an old Polaroid photo.

Those images of neutrons will provide alerts to inspectors of the type of nuclear material detected. “If you were to get a neutron signal at some port, for example,” says Ryan, “you’d bring everything to a halt because what you’re potentially dealing with there is someone trying to smuggle in material for a nuclear device, or a nuke itself.”

Read more: Nanoscale Nuclear Testing Capability Developed

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2 comments to University, Company Partner on Contraband Nuclear Detector

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