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Protecting against nuclear threats

Protecting against nuclear threats

Physics doctoral student Sunil Sahi works in Wei Chen’s lab to create thin films embedded with luminescent nanoparticles that can detect radiation sources.

Making the United States safer from the threat of dirty bombs and other radiation dispersal devices is the goal of a team of UT Arlington researchers. And it all starts with something thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair—a nanoparticle.

Led by physics Assistant Professor Wei Chen, the interdisciplinary group creates polymer thin films embedded with luminescent nanoparticles. These “nanocomposites” glow when they encounter radiation sources, such as gamma rays.

Wei Chen

Wei Chen, physics assistant professor

“The broader impact of this proposal is potentially enormous,” says Dr. Chen, principal investigator for the federally funded project. “Development of more effective uranium detection devices could be of immeasurable benefit to society if it were to help deter or prevent a nuclear incident.”

Physics Professor Andrew Brandt is the co-principal investigator. The group recently won a $1.3 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation and Department of Homeland Security for the research. The grant builds on a 2007 NSF/Homeland Security award that Chen and Brandt received.

Dr. Brandt says the second grant is evidence that federal officials were impressed with the initial work, especially Chen’s nanoparticle development.

“It makes a strong and positive statement about the trajectory of UT Arlington toward Tier One status that we are able to compete on equal footing with some of the top research universities in the country,” Brandt says.

Luminescent detection devices—called scintillators—currently used in baggage handling and shipping situations are expensive and difficult to make. Chen believes the new method will be relatively inexpensive, easier to build, and provide quicker, more accurate results. Once tested and demonstrated, the detectors could cost about $25 for a crystal that is one centimeter wide and 10 centimeters long.

Also involved in the project are Alex Weiss, professor and chair of the Physics Department; Lynn Peterson, professor and associate dean of the College of Engineering; Rasool Kenarangui, senior lecturer in the Electrical Engineering Department; and senior scientists Alan Joly and Brian Milbrath from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Two postdoctoral students, four doctoral students, and two undergraduates are also on the team.

Lectures, seminars, and an annual symposium to spark student interest are part of the effort. The researchers want to promote the idea that nanotechnology, high-energy physics, and nuclear engineering can work in concert to further homeland security. Collaborations with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California are expected to enhance the work.

“We want to have real products come from our research,” Chen says. “We will either set up our own company or collaborate with other companies in order to make this happen.”