It could be the future of nuclear detectors. It can tell the difference between neutron radiation and gamma radiation. That's important to people in charge of protecting ports of entry and borders. Neutrons indicate plutonium or uranium, material that can be used to make a bomb.
According to Steve Payne of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, "The additional small increase in neutrons will indicate that there is something amiss, and the inspector should look at this person or this vehicle more carefully." Payne is Associate Program Leader for Radiation Detecting Materials.
However, most current devices are unable to separate this kind of radiation from less hazardous gamma radiation. To do that requires the use of expensive scintillators made from liquids or crystals that glow in the presence of radiation.
Those crystals happen to be the specialty of Natalia Zaitseva, a Materials Scientist at the Lab. "Small crystals are available at relatively high cost," she says. "But large crystals are almost impossible to get for fluorescent detection."
Zaitseva and her team at Livermore Lab recently developed a new recipe that vastly improves the performance of crystals. But Zaitseva was inspired to go one step further. She decided to try it with plastic, something believed to be impossible for more than 50 years by researchers in the field.
The new formula worked. Today, inside a cylinder smaller than a coffee thermos, is a plastic detector far cheaper than crystals, produceable in large-volumes, and in sheets the size of a truck (or your palm). It's difficult to balance in one hand, but it's not hard to see that soon a detector and a display like this will be something you can hold in one hand. It's not just about size, but about cost and availability.
"It's really the first material that can be made very large and safely, and this way, improve the detectability for neutrons," Payne says.
Zaitseva predicts, "We probably will get plastics as good as the best crystals."
The next step is a partnership with a private company to commercialize the new detector material.