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Tiny Neutron Detector Has Huge Potential

by Monica Norby

The neutron detection device is shown in context with a pencil and business card.

A highly sensitive, hand-held neutron detection device developed by University of Nebraska–Lincoln researchers could be used for locating hidden nuclear materials, monitoring nuclear weapons storage and other national security applications.

The detector, built around a boron-carbide semiconductor diode smaller than a dime, can detect neutrons emitted by the materials that fuel nuclear weapons.

“This is a leapfrog technology in neutron detection,” said Peter Dowben, a UNL physicist who was the first to fabricate a boron carbide semi-conductor. Using Dowben’s boron carbide semiconductors, the research team built a detector about the size of a Lego block that is much more efficient, lighter and tougher than existing detectors.

“This device is very small, it can be powered with small batteries or even solar cells, and it can withstand corrosion and extremely high temperatures,” said mechanical engineer Brian Robertson.

Five patents are held by UNL or are pending on the device itself and on the processes for producing the semi-conductors. The team is continuing to refine the device, focusing on improving its efficiency and reliability.

“We’re looking at how to take the process to a different level,” said chemical engineer Jennifer Brand.

The team also is exploring commercialization with a Lincoln-based engineering company.

“The materials used to make the device are fairly inexpensive and there are manufacturers here in Nebraska with the technology to produce these detectors right now,” Dowben said.

Development of the detector was funded largely through the Nebraska Research Initiative, a state-funded competitive grants program.

“This is a story of how the state’s investment in research can lead to technology that benefits Nebraskans and the nation,” said Prem Paul, vice chancellor for research.

Research team in the lab. From left: Peter Dowben, Shireen Adenwalla, Andrew Harken, Jennifer Brand and Brian Robertson.

The research team also is pursuing funding opportunities with the Department of Energy, which has shown interest in the device because of the potential national security applications.

But the detector has applications beyond that, said physicist Shireen Adenwalla. NASA wants a low-mass, thin device like this for its comet landers, which measure the hydrogen content of comets. The detector also has uses in experimental medical radiation treatments for cancer, neutron “scattering,” radioactive waste monitoring and even in smuggling, Robertson said.

The research team, all affiliated with UNL’s Center for Materials Research Analysis, includes Robertson, Adenwalla, Dowben and Brand.

The team published their first neutron detection results in the prestigious journal Applied Physics Letters last May and presented their results at an international neutron instrumentation conference in July. This created immediate intense interest, accompanied by invitations from U.S. national laboratories and European laboratories to present results.

The team has been invited to participate in research on neutron detectors needed for the Spallation Neutron Source, a major new Department of Energy research facility that is now under construction at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. A substantial number of companies have also expressed interest in licensing the technology, which is readily scaleable to make larger detectors too.

Making this type of detector “is something people have been trying to do for more than 38 years and haven't been able to accomplish,” Robertson said. “We have invented this device and it works very, very well.”

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