Scientists from Los Alamos National Lab have discovered how to look through and map just about anything with a new process: the science-fictionally sounding muon tomography. Even in places like the highly radioactive Fukushima reactor, the method doesn't require any disassembly or any need for x-rays or ultrasound. Instead it logs the movement of muons (of course), a radioactive subatomic particle that exists, well, everywhere. Two giant aluminum sides are put either side of whatever needs looking into, and the system measures the trajectory of these muon particles. From this, the scientists are able sketch the object, given enough of the tiny things.
There's a drawback however, and it's time. There's typically just one muon per square centimeter per minute, says Matt Durham, the paper's lead author. This means it could take around four to six hours to scan one part of a pipe. Durham doesn't see it as a huge issue, however: "You could have a guy come in, set up a scanning machine, go off to his other duties, then at the end come back and can make a judgement call." If an issue is spotted, a more precise scan and inspection would happen. If not, the process continues elsewhere. With assistance from the Los Alamos lab, Toshiba built big, serious version of the muon detector, and plans to place a huge 27-square-foot slab on both sides of the Fukushima plant's core. Whereas robots have so far struggled, the company hopes the technique will be able to detect and help pinpoint the melted fuel inside.
Photo credit: Associated Press