Los Alamos researchers foil nuclear smugglers with 200-terawatt laser

Autore: ExtremeTech

TRIDENT laser

Most readers of ExtremeTech probably remember the unfounded panic following a few ill-informed reports over the ease of smuggling nuclear material over US borders. These reports made the crucial mistake of smuggling depleted uranium through a series of major American ports, and while the nuclear security on display in these areas was and is lacking, it was still an unfair test. Depleted uranium can’t be detected by radiation sniffers for the very same reason that the substance is useless to a would-be bomb maker: it’s not radioactive enough. Still, those reports brought awareness to a growing problem in an increasingly import-driven economy: with tens of thousands of shipping containers moving through US ports every day, how exactly can we expect to keep such porous borders safe from smugglers?

Happily, it’s a lot easier to detect a lump of plutonium than it is a stolen Mercedes or a compartment full of Russian brides. Conventional detectors range from hand-held rad-finders to drive-through detectors to X-ray scanners not unlike those used on people at airports. Each has its own set of problems, from being too bulky and slow for mass use, to being too focused and small-scale for mass use, to being too blunt and low-resolution for… you get the idea. Economies of scale work in reverse for the hard-working folks at port and border security. Now, Los Alamos National Laboratories has a simple proof of concept for a new addition to their arsenal, one that could help to fill some glaring holes in our nuclear border security.

The TRIDENT laser at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Trident laser at the Los Alamos National Laboratory

The breakthrough involves detection of not just the presence but the quantity of a nuclear material. They don’t disclose the identity of the sample they “interrogated” in this study, but given its stated implications for the War on Terror, it will certainly be either a sample of weapons-capable uranium or plutonium isotopes. The result was achieved using the Trident laser to blast an ultra-thin sample of “deuterated” plastic, which means that it’s had its hydrogen atoms replaced with deuterium, a heavy hydrogen isotope. When subjected to a pulse of energy “50 times greater than the entire production of worldwide electrical power,” this sample releases a beam of deuterium nuclei traveling at around a tenth the speed of light. To clarify that last superlative, the output is 50 times greater than the worldwide production of power per half-picosecond, which was the duration of the Trident laser blast.

The deuterium beam only travels about half a centimeter before hitting a second emission sample (the actual sample being tested), and the heavy particles carry enough force to incite the release a storm of high-powered neutrons. These neutrons have an exceptional ability to travel through heavy materials — like, say, the metal exterior of a shipping container or even the shielding necessary to hide radioactive material from more mundane radiation detectors. Once through, the neutrons still carry enough power to start a low-level fission reaction. This causes the release of even more neutrons, which are referred to as “delayed.” Over the course of whole seconds (pah!) the sample will emit detectable neutrons in a pattern that shows both the identity and quantity of the sample.

Neutron detectors have been in use for border security for a while now, but they’ve been big and unwieldy. They have also relied on helium-3 for their work, and helium is becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to come by. The researchers fantasize about truck-mounted or even personally-sized versions of their detector, with all the attendant increases in security this would bring.

There are problems, though. As can be seen in the official video above, the “containers” interrogated in this experiment are very small, while real-life shipping containers range from 8 to 53 feet in length. There are almost 20 million such containers in worldwide circulation today. The Los Alamos scientists don’t shy from the idea of miniaturizing their new tech however, so they presumably have a hypothetical path in mind. Small isn’t necessarily better, though, as it’s hard to imagine this tech could assay the whole interior of a container, rather than a thin ribbon of space within it. Want to beat border security? Duct-tape your sample to the ceiling.

In any case, the patent is pending. US border security has taken a lot of flak over the years, and they will undoubtedly jump at any new technology that might shore up their many and well publicized security deficiencies.

Now read: Nuclear power is our only hope, or, the greatest environmentalist hypocrisy of all time

5 thoughts on “Los Alamos researchers foil nuclear smugglers with 200-terawatt laser

  1. questo è il testo della TESINA di inglese…. non voglio google translate, perchè ci posso provare anche io… e se ritenete opportuno togliete qualche elemento o modificatelo…. comunque il prof la vorrebbe un po piu corta

    There can be few projects in the world which have attracted the same levels of criticism and praise than that of the Channel Tunnel. The tunnel itself is an undersea link between Folkestone in Kent and Coquelles which is near Calais in France. However, the impact which the Channel Tunnel has had on the French property market is clear with more and more UK travellers looking to acquire properties in France and using the Channel Tunnel as their route to the country.
    While the history of the Channel Tunnel is chequered to say the least it has been identified as one of the seven wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Civil Engineers and has the longest portion of any tunnel in the world below sea level. It is truly an engineering masterpiece but few people will know that the first link between France and Britain was actually suggested back in the 1802.
    The first ever suggestion of a link between France and England goes back to 1802 when Albert Mathieu’s suggested the creation of a mid-Channel artificial island which would have depended upon horse-drawn carts to ship people between the “countries”. This idea never got off the ground but the seeds were planted for yet more attempts in the future.
    For the next 170 years there was a major issue with security and with Britain being the island it is governments were very apprehensive about opening up the country’s borders and the potential problems which it may bring. However, the first actual construction of a Channel Tunnel began in 1974 when work from both the French and the British side commenced. Unfortunately the British government had a change of mind shortly after work began and the project was cancelled for “financial reasons”.
    1985 was the breakthrough which many people had been waiting for when the UK and French governments invited submissions for the new Channel Tunnel. After two years of considerations the project began in 1987 and finally ended in 1993 when the Channel Tunnel was born and connections between France and Britain changed forever. The final construction cost of the project came in at £4.6 billion which was actually 80% over the initial budget. It was decided that there will be three tunnels under the sea, two for the transport services and one to be used as a service tunnel – in effect a rescue tunnel as well.
    alessio ho detto gia prima che so che capisco il testo ma per frase e non per parola, la mia traduzione è sommaria… per la tesina ho bisogno di una traduzione perfetta

  2. Mi servirebbe un pikkolo testo sugli USA (in inglese) x l’esame oraleeeeeee!!!!perfavoreeeeeeeeeeee S.O.S. (lo so ke dovrei farlo io ma la mia prof di ingleseeeee nn è prp buona e io nn so fare nulla xS)
    grz in anticipoooooo

  3. scusate avrei bisogno di una tesina in inglese stati uniti…..per favore se potete elencare i maggiori fiumi,laghi,città,monti ecc….. grz 10 ot al migliore

  4. allora ho 14 anni e lunedì farò l’esame orale! di inglese porto gli stati uniti! ma nn trovo niente sugli stati uniti di facile. mi potreste scrivere le cose più importanti sugli stati uniti! non scrivete tanto massimo 1 pagina e scrivete roba facile vi prego vi darò 10 punti ve lo prometto! grazie mille a tutti!

  5. WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama asked Congress on Thursday for $83.4 billion for U.S. military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, pressing for special troop funding that he opposed two years ago when he was senator and George W. Bush was president.

    Obama’s request, including money to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan, would push the costs of the two wars to almost $1 trillion since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to the Congressional Research Service. The additional money would cover operations into the fall.

    Obama is also requesting $350 million in new Pentagon funding to deal with Mexican drug cartels and conduct other security activities along the U.S.-Mexico border, along with another $400 million to help Pakistan in counterinsurgency efforts along the border with Afghanistan.

    While the Iraq war by far gets the most money, the request reflects a shift in focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, where severe challenges remain and where the former Soviet Union learned firsthand the difficulties of battling Islamic extremists.

    “Nearly 95 percent of these funds will be used to support our men and women in uniform as they help the people of Iraq to take responsibility for their own future _ and work to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Obama wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

    Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, acknowledged that Obama has been critical of Bush’s use of similar special legislation to pay for the wars. He said it was needed this time because the money will be required by summer, before Congress is likely to complete its normal appropriations process.

    E io che pensavo che avessero vinto i Democratici…
    @ Rodan, forse non hai letto la parte dove l’articolo dice ceh la maggior parte dei fondi andrà nella guerra in Iraq. E comunque quella dichiarazione di Obama riprendeva quella fatta da McCain (che Bush ha ringraziato per la sua ottusità in favore del surge). Ti faccio notare che lo stesso Gen. Petraeus, voluto da Bush, con Obama é diventato Joint Chief of Staff. LA politica estera non cambia mai, soprattutto per un PAese come gli USA.
    Insisto: “Nearly 95 percent of these funds will be used to support our men and women in uniform as they help the people of Iraq to take responsibility for their own future _ and work to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” non significa che il 95% dei soldi che prima venivano usati per l’Iraq andranno in Afghanistan (questo vorrebbe dire spostare tutte le truppe dall’Iraq all’Afghanistan. Significa che il 95% saranno spese id guerre in armamenti e stipendi per i militari coinvolti.

    Insisto nuovamente: “While the Iraq war by far gets the most money”, gets é un presente e riflette uno stato attuale; the most money credo che non debba tradurlo, si capisce da sé che significa che lo sforzo in Iraq prenderà la maggior parte di quei fondi. Non mi pare ci sia molto da contestare.

Lascia un Commento

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *


due × 7 =

È possibile utilizzare questi tag ed attributi XHTML: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>