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Breakthroughs Magazine

Mission Critical

Minding mines—new landmine detection device developed

To safely deal with the 110 million landmines hidden in the soil of nearly 70 countries, two separate but equally challenging tasks must be completed. Before mines can be removed and disarmed, they must first be found.

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are building a portable system to detect landmines that is especially useful in locating those most difficult to spot—landmines that contain little or no metal.

new landmine detection device - Timed Neutron Detector

With more than 40 years' experience in radiation detection and arms control treaty verification, Pacific Northwest scientists put physics to work in their prototype detection device, the Timed Neutron Detector.

The system looks like a portable metal detector and is swept over the ground in much the same way. It sends neutrons into the soil and detects whether they interact with hydrogen, which is present in casings and explosive material found in both plastic and metal landmines.

"The system is lightweight, affordable and can scan large areas," said Richard Craig of the engineering physics group, who led development efforts. "We focused on these characteristics so that the system would be more likely to be used in Third World countries that have the greatest need for clearing mines."

One key component of the Timed Neutron Detector is a neutron source about the size of a personal pager that is designed to hold a small amount of californium-252. Fission events during this isotope's natural decay process cause three or four neutrons to shoot from the source. Electronics built into the system record the time when fission occurs and the neutrons leave the source at speeds thousands of times faster than a bullet shot from a rifle.

If these neutrons travel through the soil and encounter a landmine, they will interact with the hydrogen in the casing or explosives. The hydrogen will remove a portion of the neutron's energy and reflect what are called "slow neutrons" back toward the handheld device. Neutrons simply scattered by the dirt are not slowed in the same way.

The second major component of the system—the detector—determines if a slow neutron returns to the system. Nonradioactive helium-3 stored in low-pressure metal tubes collects the neutron and in turn, emits an electron. The electrons are collected in the tube where high-voltage wires carry their energy and signal that a landmine exists in that area.

This technology was field tested on simulated mines and was presented as part of the international meeting of the American Nuclear Society and European Nuclear Society in Washington, D.C. in late 2000. Pacific Northwest is seeking outside funds for continued development activities and intends to commercialize the technology.

Russian weapons knowledge put to peaceful work

Scientists in the Russian Federation who spent years researching and building biological weapons are now applying their knowledge to develop a promising cleanup solution for sites polluted with oil.

This project to develop oil-eating microbes has captured the interest of a U.S. industry partner and is just one example of how the U.S. Department of Energy's Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP) is facilitating the creation of stable, nondefense jobs for former weapons designers and scientists.

The IPP is a collaborative program among DOE's national laboratories; institutes and facilities that formerly produced weapons of mass destruction in Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine; and U.S. industry. "The program is designed to convert the jobs, infrastructure and human resources of former weapons complexes into new products and business opportunities," said Patricia Godoy-Kain, who manages activities at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory that are part of the IPP program.

"Finding a way to help people with expertise in developing weapons use their knowledge and skills to create innovative new products results in a real win-win situation," she said. "Their economy benefits from new commercial opportunities, businesses gain access to new and improved products and weapons experts who would otherwise be out of work are finding scientifically challenging opportunities—decreasing the chance they would be forced to sell their expertise to rogue nations due to lack of income."

When the IPP was started, it was focused on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons technology. It has since grown to prevent the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons as well. Pacific Northwest is the technical lead for all biological and chemical projects within the program.

"We evaluate project proposals, validate that qualified scientists are participating on the projects and ensure that all proposals meet the format and content requirements of the IPP program for potential commercialization," Godoy-Kain said.

In total, the IPP program has engaged more than 4,400 former weapons scientists and technicians since it was introduced in 1994. DOE has provided the program with $114 million in funding and financed more than 400 projects.

oily puddle with microbe magnification

Doing some dirty work

In the oil cleanup project, Russian scientists identified five strains of useful microbes. In collaboration with Pacific Northwest and an industry partner, they are now trying to determine the optimum combination and concentrations for destroying oil in contaminated water and soil under specific conditions.

The technology was successfully field tested in Russia and will be tested further in the United States within the next year. Pacific Northwest helped locate an industry partner in the United States that is interested in applying the microbes at different types of sites where oil contamination is found.

Fast-growing solutions

Pacific Northwest, JSC Biochimmash and a U.S. industry partner are demonstrating SYMBIOT—a plant growth stimulator developed through the IPP program. SYMBIOT increases seed germination, tilling and seed production for perennial seed crops.

Weapons for pesky pests

A research project involving Pacific Northwest and industry partners is focused on identifying insect-specific anti-metabolites so that peptides from insects can be used to control agricultural pests.

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