Protecting our borders with next-generation radiation detectors

Rebecca Nikolic

A critical aspect of protecting our borders is detecting the entry of illicit special nuclear materials (uranium and plutonium isotopes). To address concerns about potential smuggling or misuse of nuclear materials by terrorists, especially in an improvised nuclear device, the U.S. government is funding efforts to develop a new generation of instruments for detecting the neutrons that special nuclear materials emit.

Electrical engineer Rebecca Nikolic recently led a team that developed miniaturized solid-state neutron detectors that are far more efficient and compact than existing devices. These new handheld instruments are designed to scan air and ship cargoes, investigate suspicious items, monitor spent nuclear fuel, guard border crossings, and ensure compliance with nuclear arms treaties. The Livermore product uses a detection element as thin as a credit card and manufactured primarily from silicon. As part of the development effort, Rebecca took advantage of Livermore’s Innovation and Partnerships Office. This office has established an “Innovation Development Fund” that provides researchers with money to further develop promising technologies. The fund sponsored a partnership with Honeywell Corp. to incorporate the firm's boron coatings into Rebecca’s team's detector. Partnering with U.S. companies and universities is a hallmark of Livermore research.

Rebecca is currently researching batteries powered by radioisotopes for a host of applications requiring unattended sensors. She notes that all the projects she has worked on at Livermore for the past 15 years—neutron and gamma detectors, power-switching devices, radioisotope batteries, and other devices for national security purposes—possess the same fundamental building blocks: semiconductor materials, which she studied while obtaining her PhD from the University of California at San Diego.

Rebecca says she was attracted to Livermore because “I wanted to work in an R&D environment.” She says, “If you are interested in R&D, Lawrence Livermore is an excellent place to be.” In addition to a wide variety of existing research projects, “you can create new research possibilities for yourself.”

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Protecting our borders with next-generation radiation detectors