Homeland Security Turns to UT Engineering for Nuclear Detection Help

Researchers in UT’s College of Engineering have been tied to advancements in safety and detection surrounding nuclear-related issues since the dawn of the atomic age.

Now, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is once again recognizing UT’s leading role in that realm through its Academic Research Initiative.



Charles Melcher, research professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Eric Lukosi, assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering, have been awarded a $1.75 million five-year grant to investigate novel low-cost scintillators for radiation detection.

Their project—which will be funded through the Academic Research Initiative of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office of DHS—came about as a way to answer the main challenges facing nuclear radiation detection: cost and efficiency.

“Those are the big stumbling blocks in detection to this point,” said Melcher, who also serves as head of UT’s Scintillation Materials Research Center. “As with many things, as you address one of those issues it usually effects the other, and that’s what we’re attempting to change.”



Currently, germanium and cadmium zinc telluride semiconductors provide the best energy resolution for gamma-ray detection, but both are very expensive per unit volume.

Conversely, sodium iodide or plastic scintillators—basically, materials that glow when in the presence of radiation—cost much less per unit volume but also suffer from a reduced energy resolution.

“The problem with some of the more cost-effective scintillators in use today is that they can have trouble distinguishing naturally occurring radioactive materials—NORM—such as kitty litter, from other nuclear materials,” said Lukosi.

Lukosi pointed out that having low-cost detectors that are able to effectively distinguish NORM and special nuclear materials within seconds would not only make the world safer but also minimize the economic impact of tracking nuclear materials.

The award is the most recent in a string of successes for nuclear and materials researchers at UT.



Melcher credits Mariya Zhuravleva’s research—described as a “model project” by DHS—with providing the central concept for the study he and Lukosi will do.

Zhuravleva, a research assistant professor in materials science, was awarded a $2 million grant from DHS in 2012 to study and develop crystals that could be more efficiently used in border locations to detect radiation.

She said her team’s results led to breakthroughs in the types of substances being grown for scintillation purposes, some of which will now be used by Melcher and Lukosi.

Additionally, Professor Laurence Miller and Assistant Professor Jason Hayward, both in nuclear engineering, previously worked on programs funded through DHS that initiated the ongoing partnership between UT and DHS.

For UT, that means that by the time this latest project wraps up the university will have spent thirteen years at the forefront of Homeland Security’s efforts towards nuclear nonproliferation.

C O N T A C T :

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)