‘Lighthouse’ detectors minimize exposure to dangerous radiation

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Innovative “lighthouse” detectors that use a sweeping beam to pinpoint a radiation source in seconds are reducing  exposure for workers and opening up new areas for robotic monitoring to avoid potential hazards.

“It’s easier to find a needle in a haystack if the haystack is small,” said detector inventor Jonathan Dowell, a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist.

The detectors can hone in on an area while eliminating background noise or naturally occurring radiation, Dowell said. Directional sensors, similar to a beam on a lighthouse, scan through a narrow angle to look for radiation.

Los Alamos National Laboratory uses the detectors on HAZMAT robots for emergency response and to conduct geologic surveys.

“The more we can reduce radiation exposure, the better it is for the people doing the work,” Dowell said. “Using a robot or automated machines can help.”

The small radiation detectors, patented by Los Alamos National Laboratory and marketed by industrial partner Quaesta Instruments, are easy to carry and use.

“We’ve taken what used to be the size of a baseball bat and miniaturized it to the size of a jar of peanut butter,” said Dowell.

In a test later this year, several detectors will be deployed using a robot to survey radioactive materials at the Trinity Site in southern New Mexico.

In addition to the historical significance of measuring minute traces of such materials, the survey will also demonstrate the ability to test large areas in a short time while eliminating the need for workers to enter a site.

“A detector will be deployed on a robot’s arm like a doctor would hold a stethoscope to your chest,” Dowell said. “It will reach down into nooks and crannies.”

The detectors can be used in various applications, including locating contaminants at waste sites, conducting inventory, tracking the movement of radioactive materials for national security purposes, and verifying that areas are free of radioactive sources.

Universities and hospitals are some of the industries that can benefit from the technology.