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Professors awarded $1.3 million from NSF, Homeland Security to develop nanomaterials to detect radiation

 Wei Chen
Wei Chen

The National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Homeland Security have awarded more than $1.3 million to a team of UT Arlington researchers who will spend the next five years exploring ways to develop various nanoparticles for radiation detection. Their research could lead to a new type of radiation detector that would help reduce the threat of nuclear materials being brought into the country illegally and used in terrorism.

Physics assistant professor Wei Chen, the principal investigator, and professor Andrew Brandt, the co-principal investigator, will lead the research efforts. The nanocomposites designed for radiation detection are polymer thin films embedded with luminescence nanoparticles. These nanocomposites will glow with light when they encounter radiation sources, such as gamma rays.

"The broader impact of this proposal is potentially enormous," Chen said. "Development of more effective uranium detections devices could be of immeasurable benefit to society if it were to help deter or prevent a nuclear incident."

Luminescent detection devices - called scintillators - currently used in baggage handling and shipping situations are expensive and difficult to build, Chen said. The new method would be relatively inexpensive, easier to build and provide quicker, more accurate results.

"The unique aspect of this proposal is that the nanoparticles are formed into hybrid 'crystals' that combine the high stopping power and excellent energy resolution of crystals with the potentially high quantum efficiency and short decay lifetimes associated with nanoparticles," Brandt said.

Once tested and demonstrated, the new detectors could cost about $25 for a crystal that is about one centimeter wide and 10 centimeters long.

Andrew Brandt
Andrew Brandt

"The low price would make these nanoparticles competitive with other detector options, especially when combined with the prospects of higher sensitivity for radiation detection," Chen said.

Other UT Arlington researchers involved in the new grant are Alex Weiss, professor and chair of the Department of Physics; Lynn Peterson, professor and associate dean of the College of Engineering; Ratan Kumar, senior lecturer in mechanical and aerospace engineering; and Rasool Kenarangui, senior lecturer in electrical engineering. Also involved in the project are senior scientists Alan G. Joly and Brian Milbrath from the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The grant builds on a 2007 NSF/Homeland Security $355,798 grant obtained by Chen and Brandt in 2007.

The National Science Foundation is providing $253,000 in first-year funding for the new project. The remaining four years will be supported through Homeland Security.

In addition to their research, the team will be including an educational outreach component. Lectures, seminars and an annual symposium are planned to spark student interest in research and promote the idea that nanotechnology, high-energy physics and nuclear engineering can work in concert to further homeland security.