Nav: Home

X-ray vision? Laser-derived X-ray method finds hidden nuclear materials

December 21, 2015

Lincoln, Neb., Dec. 21, 2015 -- Physicists at the Diocles Extreme Light Laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have demonstrated that their unconventional laser-based X-ray machine could provide a new defense against nuclear terrorism.

In proof-of-principle experiments, the UNL scientists used the laser-driven X-ray source to produce an image of a uranium disk no bigger than a stack of three nickels and hidden between 3-inch steel panels.

"For the first time, we have used our new X-ray source to detect a nuclear material inside a shielded container," said Donald Umstadter, director of the Diocles Laboratory and leader of the project.

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office of the Department of Homeland Security funds the research. The government is evaluating the technology.

Inspectors need tools to help find nuclear materials hidden behind thick shielding or smuggled inside any of the 100 million-plus cargo containers shipped around the world each year. Uranium is perhaps the easiest nuclear material to obtain and hide, Umstadter said.

The researchers demonstrated that laser-produced X-rays can detect an even smaller amount of uranium than the minimum amount required by current inspection standards (1 kilogram) and can penetrate much thicker steel than the walls of cargo containers.

The laser X-ray source offers a number of advantages. Much like a laser pointer can be directed across a large auditorium, the technology can shoot a thin X-ray beam long distances, enabling inspection of cargo ships before they reach port. Yet it emits much lower levels of radiation than conventional X-rays, making it safer for use around workers and bystanders.

Unlike previous sources of similar X-rays, which require stadium-sized facilities, this X-ray source is portable and could be moved in a semi-trailer truck, increasing its potential for use as a nuclear site inspection tool.

Umstadter and his team announced in 2013 they had developed the laser-driven X-ray source, called a laser-wakefield-accelerator-driven inverse-Compton-scattering, or LWFA-ICS, source. At the time, they said the new source not only would increase the availability of sophisticated forms of X-rays needed for physics research, but it could be used to detect hidden or smuggled nuclear materials. Since then, Umstadter and his team have set about proving that the X-ray machine would work for those purposes.

"It's not unusual for scientists to go beyond basic research to develop new technologies, as we did with our device," he said. "However, the great urgency and importance of detecting smuggled nuclear materials compelled us to go even further and be the first to apply the new technology."

UNL holds a patent on the new detection method, Umstadter said. The University of Michigan's Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences provided numerical simulation support as a subcontractor on the project.

The next step in this project for Umstadter and his team is to improve the performance of the X-ray device as well as the precision with which it can identify shielded nuclear materials.

Umstadter and Shouyuan Chen, a UNL research assistant professor of physics and astronomy, presented their findings at the International Meeting on Laser-Driven Radiation Sources for Nuclear Applications at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 15. An article describing their findings will appear in the January issue of the journal Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research, B.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Related Physics Articles:

Diamonds coupled using quantum physics
Researchers at TU Wien have succeeded in coupling the specific defects in two such diamonds with one another.
The physics of wealth inequality
A Duke engineering professor has proposed an explanation for why the income disparity in America between the rich and poor continues to grow.
Physics can predict wealth inequality
The 2016 election year highlighted the growing problem of wealth inequality and finding ways to help the people who are falling behind.
Physics: Toward a practical nuclear pendulum
Researchers from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) Munich have, for the first time, measured the lifetime of an excited state in the nucleus of an unstable element.
Flowers use physics to attract pollinators
A new review indicates that flowers may be able to manipulate the laws of physics, by playing with light, using mechanical tricks, and harnessing electrostatic forces to attract pollinators.
Physics, photosynthesis and solar cells
A University of California, Riverside assistant professor has combined photosynthesis and physics to make a key discovery that could help make solar cells more efficient.
2-D physics
Physicist Andrea Young receives a 2016 Packard Fellowship to pursue his studies of van der Waals heterostructures.
Cats seem to grasp the laws of physics
Cats understand the principle of cause and effect as well as some elements of physics.
Plasma physics' giant leap
For the first time, scientists are looking at real data -- not computer models, but direct observation -- about what is happening in the fascinating region where the Earth's magnetic field breaks and then joins with the interplanetary magnetic field.
Nuclear physics' interdisciplinary progress
The theoretical view of the structure of the atom nucleus is not carved in stone.

Related Physics Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#SB2 2019 Science Birthday Minisode: Mary Golda Ross
Our second annual Science Birthday is here, and this year we celebrate the wonderful Mary Golda Ross, born 9 August 1908. She died in 2008 at age 99, but left a lasting mark on the science of rocketry and space exploration as an early woman in engineering, and one of the first Native Americans in engineering. Join Rachelle and Bethany for this very special birthday minisode celebrating Mary and her achievements. Thanks to our Patreons who make this show possible! Read more about Mary G. Ross: Interview with Mary Ross on Lash Publications International, by Laurel Sheppard Meet Mary Golda...