Detecting material remotely

Physicists have developed a powerful new method to detect radioactive material. By using an infrared laser beam to induce a phenomenon known as an electron avalanche breakdown near the material, the new technique is able to detect shielded material from a distance. The method improves upon current technologies that require close proximity to the radioactive material.

Physicists at the University of Maryland have developed a powerful new method to detect radioactive material. By using an infrared laser beam to induce a phenomenon known as an electron avalanche breakdown near the material, the new technique is able to detect shielded material from a distance. The method improves upon current technologies that require close proximity to the radioactive material.

With additional engineering advancements, the method could be scaled up and used to scan trucks and shipping containers at ports of entry, providing a powerful new tool to detect concealed, dangerous radioactive material. The researchers described their proof-of-concept experiments in a research paper published in the journal Science Advances.

“Traditional methods rely on a radioactive decay particle interacting directly with a detector. All of these methods decline in sensitivity with distance,” said Robert Schwartz, a physics graduate student at UMD and the lead author of the research paper. “The benefit of our method is that it is inherently a remote process. With further development, it could detect radioactive material inside a box from the length of a football field.”

As radioactive material emits decay particles, the particles strip electrons from—or ionize—nearby atoms in the air, creating a small number of free electrons that quickly attach to oxygen molecules. UMD says that by focusing an infrared laser beam into this area, Schwartz and his colleagues easily detached these electrons from their oxygen molecules, seeding an avalanche-like rapid increase in free electrons that is relatively easy to detect.



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