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The challenge of nuclear terrorism has become a threat that requires new and innovative technologies. A team formed by, among the rest, scientists at Colorado State University (CSU), will work to create a new instrument capable of detecting trace amounts of uranium and other materials.

The research partnership, led at CSU by University Professor Carmen Menoni of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office through its Nuclear Forensics Research Award (NFRA) program.

According to phys.org, Menoni will oversee the design and implementation of a highly sensitive mass spectrometer capable of detecting just a few uranium atoms at a time, which may prove useful in counter nuclear terrorism operations. The instrument will also allow nano scale imaging of the isotopic content of solid samples, in three dimensions.

“The new instrument we’re going to build is going to be far more sensitive than our previous, extreme ultraviolet spectrometry instrument,” Menoni said. “It will employ a magnet to identify uranium, thorium and their isotopes at a concentration of a few parts per million.”

The imaging technology provides unprecedented sensitivity and spatial resolution since it uses an extreme ultraviolet laser.

The laser process creates a plume of ionized atoms and molecules, which the detector reads inside a vacuum chamber. A set of special plates allows the scientists to extract and detect ions from the sample, identifying uranium (or other elements) by determining its unique ion signature, like a fingerprint.

Identifying minute amounts of various compounds has its uses in national security, but could also be applied to any process requiring identification of very small amounts of molecules.