Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln believe their portable X-ray machine can see radioactive material even when it’s hidden. The physicists developed a laser-driven X-ray that can detect uranium as small as a nickel hidden behind 3 inches of steel.
“We’re able to find that needle in the haystack with this new type of x-ray source, which we developed here at UNL,” said Donald Umstadter, director of the Diocles Extreme Light Lab.
The research, funded by the Department of Homeland Security, could be used to help inspectors detect nuclear materials attempted to be smuggled inside any one of the 100 million-plus cargo containers shipped around world each year. It can not only see uranium, but other explosives as well.
“Anything that is invisible normally, we can now see,” Umstadter said. “Not only did Superman have X-ray vision, he was also small and fast, and that’s what we need to do with our device.”
Umstadter said that’s the next step. He believes they can make the X-ray small enough to fit into a van, maybe even placed in a drone. And because it uses laser technology, it emits lower levels of radiation that make it safer for workers or bystanders.
“You want the freedom to look at cargo containers anywhere in the world under any circumstances, and we think this technology provide you with that freedom,” Umstadter said.
The government is closely looking at the possibilities, but the device could also have other uses, like mining for uranium and applications in the health field.
“These X-rays could perhaps improve diagnostics of cancer,” Umstadter said.
Growing up during the Cold War and now with the war on terror, Umstadter knows what their research could mean to national security.
“The fact that the source we developed has the potential to solve one of the most important problems is very gratifying,” he said.
The team’s findings were recently published in national publications. The University of Nebraska holds patent for the laser X-ray.
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