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Sensitive Scintillators Home in on Illicit Nuclear Materials

Moments of great national need can prompt exceptional scientific discovery. The story of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s advancements in the arena of radiation detection materials perfectly illustrates such a success.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, the American consciousness turned toward improved national security. By 2005, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had sent out a call for improved radiation detection materials. Established technology faced limitations in portability, safety, material scarcity, and expense, four challenges that undermined the availability and usability of these invaluable security tools. Owing to the Lab’s continuing mission to deliver solutions that improve the nation’s security, LLNL’s high-caliber researchers, excellent facilities, and shared purpose converged to answer the nation’s call and to reinvent tools for detecting illicit radiation.

LLNL’s quest for improved radiation detection resources began when a team of physical chemists and physicists returned to the most fundamental foundations of their fields: the periodic table. Interrogating the basic configuration and properties of elements and compounds, these researchers unearthed revolutionary radiation-detecting scintillators—materials that light up when triggered by specific types of radioactive emissions. Surpassing the DHS’s request for an improved detection material, LLNL’s expert team created a variety of new scintillator materials that offered manufacturers options: some materials could be grown quickly, some could be constructed using unprecedented applications of plastics, some were nearly as successful at distinguishing between illicit materials’ gamma-ray radiation and fast neutrons as their more expensive, time-intensive predecessors. These new materials—including Barium Iodide and Strontium Iodide crystal scintillators, solution grown organic scintillators, and scintillating dye enriched plastics—enabled detector manufacturers to overcome the limitations barring the broader insertion of these safeguarding tools.

The impact of new radiation-detecting materials is marked not just by innovation but also by distribution. To promote the dissemination and advancement of radiation detection technologies, LLNL offers ongoing, nonexclusive licenses to a variety of manufacturers and researchers. Partnering entities include Northrup Grumman , Radiation Monitoring Devices, INRAD Optics, Inc., and Eljen Technologies. These businesses have built upon the award-winning success of the new scintillating materials by converting the substances into portable detectors or infrastructure for port authorities, thereby transforming the science into products that keep America and its allies safe. The success of these partnerships yielded several accolades, most notably R&D 100 Awards, a Department of Homeland Security and Domestic Nuclear Detection Office Award for contributions to advanced materials development, a Tibbetts Award from the U.S. Small Business Association honoring INRAD Optics, Inc., and a Far West Region Federal Laboratory Consortium Award for Outstanding Commercialization Success (also honoring INRAD Optics). These triumphs underscore the success of the transition LLNL’s radiation detection materials have made from the laboratory to the world and highlight the public service LLNL and the network of National Laboratories continue to offer to the American people.