Researchers develop laser-driven nuclear detector

Researchers with the Los Alamos National Laboratory recently demonstrated the use of laser-generated neutrons to detect nuclear material, the New Mexico-based lab announced on Tuesday.

In February, the international research team used a short-pulse laser to generate a neutron beam that searched a closed container to confirm the presence and amount of nuclear material inside. The experiment could lead to a tabletop-sized or truck-mounted neutron generator that could be used to stop the smuggling of nuclear materials.

"We have demonstrated for the first time a novel approach for generating a record number of neutrons driven by a laser directed into a beam over a very small area that could provide proof positive of a large variety of nuclear items," Andrea Favalli, the leader of the experiment, said.

Until the successful experiment, detecting hidden nuclear material with active searching was somewhat impractical because it would require a giant, stationary facility or longer measuring times. The experiment at the lab's TRIDENT facility demonstrates promise for developing a portable neutron device that could be used at border crossings or other strategic locations.

"This is something that has never been demonstrated before," Favalli said. "Up until this experiment, nuclear material detection with a single laser-generated neutron pulse was merely an idea. Our team invented the concept, fabricated all the materials necessary for the experiment, and confirmed our results within three weeks from start to finish. This is a little bit like the original days at Los Alamos National Laboratory. It is very exciting!"

Neutron interrogation could also be used in other applications like biological and material sciences. The technology could also become practical in smaller laboratories and universities.