Phoenix Nuclear Labs has partnered with the US Army to develop a compact, high yield neutron source for the detection of improvised explosive devices (IED’s). When neutrons interact with material, they are sometimes absorbed and radiation “fingerprints” are emitted that provide information about the type of material present. Almost all explosive materials contain high quantities of nitrogen. Most other things, both natural and manmade, do not. Furthermore, when a nitrogen atom captures a neutron, a very high energy (10.8 MeV) gamma ray is emitted. This gamma ray has significantly higher energy than most background gamma rays and is thus easily detectable to signal the presence of an explosive threat.
The US Army (and other branches of the Armed Forces) have an urgent need for technologies that can detect explosives from large standoff distances in operational settings. Neutrons have been used in the field for applications like minefield clearance, but previously existing neutron sources have been relatively weak and have limited standoff detection to less than one meter. The PNL neutron source is orders of magnitude stronger than other off-the-shelf neutron generators, and it results in an IED detection system capable of detecting explosives rapidly from greater than 20 meters away.
An Army-funded prototype was completed during the summer of 2014. Preliminary testing of that system is currently underway in the PNL laboratory.