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New Nuclear Materials Detection Technology

A major resource of this country is the National Laboratory system. While sometimes the work done at the Labs is "basic research" area, other times, major breakthroughs occur in areas of significant and timely importance. Since September 11, 2001, one of the concerns for Homeland Security has been the tens of thousands of cargo containers entering our 93 maritime ports, and the possibility that one could contain contraband nuclear material.

It has now been announced that scientists at Idaho National Laboratory, teaming with engineers from the Idaho Accelerator Center have developed a prototype technology that may be capable of accurately scanning cargo containers for smuggled and shielded nuclear materials at long distances.

The technology, developed by INL scientist Dr. James Jones and a team of INL and Idaho Accelerator Center engineers, is known as the Photonuclear Inspection and Threat Assessment System, or PITAS. The system uses many of the same commercial components found in modern cancer treatment devices, including a linear accelerator that creates an invisible high-energy photon beam, which interrogates and identifies suspected nuclear materials. The beam works by inducing fission reactions in nuclear materials that create an assortment of prompt and delayed neutron and gamma rays. The delayed rays are analyzed by a series of detectors that looks for peaks and signatures consistent with illicit nuclear materials.

The financial award made by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, just $25,000, is dwarfed by the potential and serious benefit that this innovation could have.

The Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation awarded its 2008 Homeland Security Award to recognize the PITAS technology for its numerous enhancements and advantages over current screening technology. The Foundation and its co-sponsor, AgustaWestland North America, annually award one scientist a $25,000 prize for development of technology that has the potential to solve a complex national security challenge.

Of course, this is just a first step toward providing a solution to the question of non-intrusive inspection of cargo containers, non-proliferation security, and guarding against the possibiity of a radiological weapon attack. Maybe not obvious is the challenge of having a company to duplicate and scale this development into a deployable system. That is the element of technology transfer, commercializing new and important technological solutions. Technology transfer is an area of personal interest.