Machine Design

Fallout from studying supernovae: Detectors for nuclear contraband

Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National laboratory have long used cutting-edge technology to detect nuclear emissions from distant galaxies, supernovae, and black holes.

Technologies for seeing far-off supernova such as this one will be used to prevent terrorists from smuggling nuclear materials.

"Now we've taken those advanced technologies and adapted them for such national security uses as detecting radiation from nuclear materials," says Simon Labov, head of Livermore's Radiation Detection Center. "In both cases, emissions are faint and there is a lot of background noise."

Researchers hope detectors under development will not only study black holes at the edge of the universe, but also turn up in hand-held devices that find and analyze illegal nuclear materials on Earth. One such device will take a ride on a high-altitude balloon later this year. A special telescope containing an array of mirrors will focus gamma rays onto detectors having 10 to 100 times the sensitivity of conventional gamma-ray detectors. Detector circuits and cadmium-zinc-telluride crystals will measure gamma ray signals at hundreds of different points, creating clear pictures with high spectral resolution. The device is also compact, uses little power, and can be inexpensively manufactured.

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