The Lab Breakthroughs series is a collection of digital features accompanied by a Q&A from a lead researcher showcasing how innovation at National Labs have shaped our world, and how they are defining the technology of the future. The series originally appeared at Energy.gov.
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory‘s Charles Gentile, Lead Developer of the Miniature Integrated Nuclear Detection System (MINDS), took some time to talk about how his device distinguishes normal radiation from the kinds that signal a potential nuclear threat, like a “dirty bomb.”
Question: What makes the breakthrough so exciting for travelers and authorities? Or perhaps, conversely, what makes it scary for bad guys?
Charles Gentile: What makes Miniature Integrated Nuclear Detection System (MINDS) technology exciting for travelers and authorities is that it is quick, passive and accurate. There is nothing invasive about MINDS. The system detects and identifies radiological conditions under a variety of real-world environments. What makes it scary for the bad guys is that MINDS is unobtrusive and can be anywhere and everywhere. It can be in building lobbies, train stations and entry gates, for example.
Q: I had no idea there was radioactive material in so many substances. Is there any danger in constant contact with the items you mentioned, like kitty litter and battery detectors?
CG: All life on Earth is exposed to low levels of radiation on a daily basis. There is no known danger resulting from this chronic, everyday low level of radiation. Perhaps more important, there is no practical way to isolate oneself from these very low levels of radiation.
Q: What about your facility’s specific resources made it the right place to develop this technology?
CG: We were the first fusion-energy site to decommission a machine that used radioactive fuel. This called for developing a device that could quickly and easily detect radioactive residue so that it could be removed. Our laboratory has a very open climate for discussing ideas, and by pooling the intellectual resources of our physicists and engineers we were able to develop the MINDS technology.
Q: I know that work often builds from other work in a “standing on the shoulders of giants” type of way. Are there any particular technologies or discoveries that act as a basis for your work?
CG: In developing MINDS, we employed state-of-the-art technologies from fields that included computer technology, detector technology, nuclear technology and fusion-energy technology. Combining the best of these fields to develop a small, ultra-sensitive nuclear identification system is what led to our success.
Q: Could this breakthrough have other applications outside of security?
CG: Yes. One area in which this technology could have an impact is in space exploration, where small, light and robust equipment is essential. This device could be mounted on a Mars Exploration Rover, for example, and used to identify radionuclides during possible mineral exploration.