U-M Spinout H3D Unveils “Game-Changing” Nuclear Detection Technology

Detecting nuclear radiation is easy. All you need is a simple, inexpensive Geiger counter. But to be able to precisely identify both the type of radiation and where it is coming from is much more challenging. That’s crucial for everything from searching for possible nuclear weapons in shipping containers to performing routine maintenance or emergency response in nuclear power plants.

The problem is that devices capable of precisely imaging nuclear radiation in this way cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are bulky and cumbersome. They typically rely on a semiconducting material called germanium, which must be cooled with liquid nitrogen to work. The radiation imagers made by Ortec used to search for smuggled nuclear materials in some of the world’s ports, for instance, are huge and weigh thousands of pounds.

But now H3D, an Ann Arbor, MI-based startup, has developed what some are calling a game-changing radiation imaging technology—a small, room-temperature, handheld device called the Polaris-H that could be sold starting at less than $100,000. “It’s changing the paradigm of radiation detection,” says Bill Hagen, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. “What’s exciting about it is that [the Polaris-H] can tell exactly where the radiation is coming from, and it’s smaller, lighter, and can be used at room temperature. It was a big success when I was in government to have a company commercialize this technology so it’s available to officers in the field.”

The imaging of nuclear radiation for detection purposes has traditionally been a burdensome task. The most widely used imaging devices have operated like old-fashioned pinhole cameras: they’re typically big and stationary, largely because of the required cooling apparatus. They require a long exposure, and often they can’t differentiate between gamma-ray energies.

That’s why Zhong He, a professor in U-M’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences, has been working on building a better radiation detector since 1998. His original aim was to improve the ability to detect nuclear terrorism. He and his team of grad students built a suitcase-sized imaging spectrometer called the Polaris. But they quickly realized that Polaris could be put to immediate use detecting radiation in nuclear energy facilities, and they set about refining its design.

In 2011, He and a team of former grad students launched H3D from He’s university research, which has won more than $20 million in government funding throughout the past decade. H3D has shrunk the Polaris to what is now a handheld imager called the Polaris-H. Last fall, H3D began selling the Polaris-H commercially, and the company sees a number of industries in addition to nuclear energy—space science, proton cancer therapy, homeland security–where it expects its devices to have a major impact.

Willy Kaye, H3D’s president, says radiation is both invisible and deadly, which is … Next Page »

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