Geiger counters and other traditional radiation detection systems rely on a radioactive decay particle interacting directly with a detector. That means close proximity to radiation is necessary because the presence of decay particles drops sharply with distance.

Now physicists at the University of Maryland have developed a technique using an infrared laser that can detect radioactive material from long distances.

One of the most exciting and useful applications if the device can be scaled? Scanning trucks and shipping containers at ports of entry for radioactive materials. Proof-of-concept of the device was published this March in the journal Science Advances.

How does it work?

Radioactive materials emit decay particles that strip electrons from nearby atoms in the air. The free electrons then attach to oxygen molecules. The infrared laser beam used at the University of Maryland detaches these free electrons from the oxygen molecules, ionizing the air by creating an avalanche of free electrons.

As the air in the laser’s path begins to ionize, it has a measurable effect on the infrared light reflected back to the detector. The laser can detect how much radioactive material is present in the target by timing the ionization process; faster ionization means more radiation is present.

At the moment, the laser is lab-sized. But in the future it’s speculated that a similar laser could fit inside a van. The concept works, and with further development “it could detect radioactive material inside a box from the length of a football field.”  

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