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Bomb-sniffing crystals may save us from nuclear Armageddon, tea leaves agree

Amar Toor, @amartoo

Worried that a nuclear attack might wipe out all of American civilization? You needn't be, because the scientific community's crystal ball says crystal balls may save humanity. Last week, the Department of Energy awarded a $900,000 grant to Fisk University and Wake Forest, where researchers have been busy exploring the counter-terrorist capabilities of strontium iodide crystals. Once laced with europium, these crystals can do a remarkably good job of picking up on and analyzing radiation, as the team from Fisk and other national laboratories recently discovered. Cost remains the most imposing barrier to deploying the materials at airports or national borders, though soothsaying scientists claim it's only a matter of time before they develop a way to produce greater crystalline quantities at an affordable price. The only thing Miss Cleo sees is a glistening press release, in your very near, post-break future.

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Crystals detect threats to national security

Wake Forest University and Fisk University awarded $900,000 to detect nuclear threats

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – July 15, 2011 – Using a crystal ball to protect homeland security might seem far-fetched, but researchers at Wake Forest University and Fisk University have partnered to develop crystals that can be used to detect nuclear threats, radioactive material or chemical bombs more accurately and affordably.

The research is made possible by a $900,000 grant from the Office of Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development of the National Nuclear Security Administration, within the U.S. Department of Energy.

The grant will support both universities' continued research in the area of radiation detection, which ultimately could lead to improved detector devices for screening cargo containers at ports, airports and border crossings. It would detect trace amounts of radioactive or chemical material – similar to a CT scan or PET scan detecting a tumor in the human body – and lead to better medical diagnostics.

"This grant is an acknowledgement of Fisk and Wake Forest's excellence and leadership in the field of radiation detection research," said Fisk University Professor of Physics and Vice Provost Arnold Burger.

Researchers at Fisk and in national laboratories previously discovered that strontium iodide crystals doped with europium are able to detect and analyze radiation better than most other detection materials. Wake Forest researchers recently demonstrated the unexpectedly crucial role of specific parameters – electron and hole mobilities – needed to predict the best energy resolution of a given detector crystal.

Currently, expense is an issue because of the large quantities of the crystalline material ultimately needed for widely deployed screening devices. However, strontium iodide already performs much better than the most affordable detectors currently used, and the scientists are optimistic that with the right calculations and adjustments, crystals of the needed quality and size can be grown and produced affordably.
"Unexpected radiation situations are a fact of our modern world," said Dr. Richard Williams, Professor of Physics at Wake Forest. "By improving radiation detection and diagnostics, our research will benefit medical advancement as well as international security."

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