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Current portable radiation detectors are fragile, bulky and expensive. A research team from the University of Texas at Dallas developed a cheaper and more accurate portable technology to detect neutron radiation, which can indicate the presence of materials used for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The technology has dual-use potential, as it can also be used in radiation therapy, among other civilian applications.

The research was funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Science Foundation and Texas Instruments.

Manufacturing costs for the new material is 100 to 1,000 times less expensive than current radiation detectors. The technology is based on a thin film that allows for smaller, lighter and efficient sensors. By making these neutron sensors more affordable, they can be used in new ways, such as in networks in airports or in tunnels leading into a large city to detect smuggled special nuclear material, which is radioactive material that can be used to make WMD.

According to Dr. Manuel Quevedo, professor and department head of materials science and engineering (MSE) in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, “the goal is to make it nearly impossible to move special nuclear materials without being detected. For example, if there’s a car loaded with radioactive material, you could detect it and actively track the vehicle motion.”

The UT Dallas researchers’ patented technology involves a thin film based on perovskite materials. The film measures as thin as 8 micrometers, the size of a strand of spider silk.

Radiation from neutrons is one of the most difficult types of radiation to detect because neutrons have no electrical charge, Quevedo said.

Smaller, lighter and less-expensive neutron radiation detectors have a range of potential applications that go beyond national security, for instance, in health and consumer protection applications. Quevedo said the devices could detect radioactive waste material from oil and gas drilling, which can come from drilling through rocks that contain natural radioactivity. It also could measure radiation exposure in hospital settings and detect radiation in contaminated scrap metal.

The technology will be tested at five airports in Mexico.

Quevedo has been awarded six patents related to the technology, and he and researchers in his Flexible and Large Area Nanoelectronics (FLAN) laboratory published several recent studies on this work, according to utdallas.edu.