The radiation detectors currently in use at U.S. ports and border crossings can be a bit hazy when it comes to narrowing down the source of a radiation signature and figuring out whether it’s a threat or benign.
The alarm might go up over a shipment of kitty litter or porcelain, both of which contain trace elements of uranium. The potassium in bananas and cocoa powder can give off the same radiation signature as plutonium.
Now Fisk researchers, in partnership with industry and top national research
laboratories, have developed a new type of radiation-detecting crystal that is not only more accurate than most of the devices on the market, but also cheaper and easier to make.
“Science is always trying to push the envelope,” said Fisk physics professor Arnold Burger, director of the school’s Material Science Laboratories, who has spent the past 25 years at the university working on crystal research.
Grown easily in weeks
The strontium iodide crystals Burger and his students have developed are light purple hunks, about the size of an aspirin bottle.
Unlike detector sources that can work only in the freezing cold of a cryogenic chamber or can be made only with waste products from nuclear weapons manufacture, these crystals can be grown in a laboratory in a matter of weeks with relative ease.
In November, Fisk and its research partners at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Radiation Monitoring Devices Inc. and the Department of Homeland Security will be honored with an R&D 100 award, given to the 100 cleverest inventions of the year.
The new detector — or “high-performance strontium iodide scintillator for gamma-ray spectroscopy” — could go into production next year.
Other uses studied
The devices currently on the market cost more than $800,000, according to a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office, and use technology far more expensive than Fisk’s crystals.
Not that Fisk is likely to reap much of an immediate reward from its anti-terrorism efforts.
Lynn Boatner, a corporate research fellow at Oak Ridge and part of the research development team that created the new detectors, joked that his and the other researchers’ reward for their invention wouldn’t give him enough money to take his wife out to dinner.
But Fisk researchers are already looking into other uses for the crystals, which have the potential to be just as useful at quick and early detection of conditions such as cancer and osteoporosis.
‘A top research program’
It is the third such award Fisk has won over the years. “The program there that Arnold Burger runs is really highly regarded as a top research program,” Boatner said. “It’s quite remarkable that they have a really outstanding research program at what is not really regarded as a top research school.”
The top research schools are big institutions with even bigger research budgets and state-of-the-art facilities. Fisk is a tiny liberal arts college with barely 800 students and a running budget shortfall.
Fisk’s facilities are aging — the classrooms still use chalk blackboards, and students have been known to build their own laboratory equipment when the supply budgets run short.
But the students say doing more with less helps them focus on their research and teaches them a more flexible approach to problem solving.
“Fisk is a school that survives,” said Julie Sejour, who is pursuing a master’s degree in physics at Fisk before moving on to Vanderbilt University’s doctorate program, part of a collaborative arrangement between the two schools known as the Bridge Program. “The fact that Fisk can continue to maintain its positive reputation and continue to produce this level of research tells you something.”
Jennifer Brooks, The Tennessean