Developing technologies to detect radiological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction

Vincent Tang

Not all Livermore scientists remain at the Laboratory their whole careers. Some accept temporary assignments elsewhere, for example, when an opportunity arises to advance work they started at the Laboratory. This is what Vincent Tang, a physicist and engineer who develops technologies to detect radiological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction, did. After studying nuclear engineering and physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and MIT, where he finished his Ph.D. in applied plasma physics, Tang was offered a staff position at Livermore. During graduate studies, he had worked in magnetic fusion, but wanted to broaden his contributions. “Livermore offers a lot of opportunities to move into a variety of fields,” says Tang. “The chance to contribute to national security was a big positive.”

Arriving at Livermore in 2006, Tang spent seven years building a group that used accelerator- and plasma-based radiation sources to detect illicit materials with funding from the Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense. After giving a presentation on this work at a technical meeting, Tang was approached by a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) director. The agency, she told him, was interested in building its capability in countering weapons of mass destruction for national security. Would he be interested in being a program manager there? Discussions between Livermore and DARPA followed, and in 2013, with strong support of his Livermore managers, Tang accepted the temporary assignment in Washington D.C.

During his six years at DARPA, Tang created three programs and a large international, cross-agency initiative. His largest program, SIGMA, was to develop a network of low-cost but high-capability sensors to detect urban-scale nuclear threats. His team developed and successfully demonstrated a prototype network of Internet-linked sensors, scaling it up from tens to thousands. The technology was tested in multiple cities, including D.C., and it is now being operationally transitioned to federal, state, and local partners. The success of SIGMA led to SIGMA+, a cross-agency and international effort to extend the SIGMA sensor network to one that can also detect chemical, explosive, and biological threats, incorporating additional sensor technology, advanced intelligence analysis, and adversary behavior modeling.

“It was an amazing experience to lead the SIGMA team, and to work with our federal partners in the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and Energy, and the United Kingdom, as well as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services, and Indianapolis Police Department to develop and deploy SIGMA.  I am extremely thankful for my colleagues in these and other agencies who helped to make SIGMA real, and grateful for the friendships I’ve made along the way,” says Tang.

Tang also undertook two other projects. The Intense and Compact Neutron Source (ICONS) program developed highly portable, high yield neutron sources to make in-the-field neutron radiography a practical tool for detecting nuclear threats and non-destructive evaluation. The new sources increased the yield per volume of neutrons tens of times greater than those currently available. His third program focused on hybrid analog/digital computation technologies to help computing sustain increased performance trends beyond the limitations of Moore’s law.

For his efforts, Tang was awarded DARPA’s Superior Public Service Medal in 2019, a finalist for the 2017 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, and named DARPA Program Manager of the Year in 2016. With his assignment completed in the summer of 2019, Tang returned to the Lab and is currently the division leader for Engineering’s Laser Systems Engineering and Operations (LSEO) Division.  “I am grateful to the Lab and DARPA for the opportunity to do impactful work that pushes what is possible for our national security,” says Tang,  “And it is wonderful to come home and be a part of the LSEO team that is doing the same on NIF and other first-of-a kind laser systems!”

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Developing technologies to detect radiological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction