Imaging Radiation in Space, Imaging Radiation in our Backyards

Imaging Radiation in Space, Imaging Radiation in our Backyards

Nov 09, 2012

Medical imaging isotopes transported on the highway. Improperly disposed radioactive research materials. Industrial site monitoring. Dirty bombs. Detecting radioactive materials at ports and border crossings before they enter the US.

If we can image radiation in the galaxy, what about imaging radiation in our backyards?

Answer: NSPECT – A Portable Imaging Neutron and Gamma-Ray Spectrometer

How it all came about:

Jim Ryan has spent 30+ years studying, among other things, neutrons and gamma-rays from the Sun and other astronomical bodies.  A UNH professor of physics at the Space Science Center, Jim started thinking about how his space technology could be adapted to detect neutron and gamma-ray emitting materials more locally.

Jim developed NSPECT, a portable imaging spectrometer, with a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract funded by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA)Michigan Aerospace Corporation received the award and subcontracted the instrument development to UNH.  UNH has filed three US patent applications to protect NSPECT intellectual property. Two of NSPECT’s unique features are its detection sensitivity and its remarkable adaptability. It is easily transportable, small enough to fit into the back of a smaller utility vehicle, and it can also be enlarged and made stationary, more suitable for portal monitoring or perimeter surveillance. A prototype of NSPECT has undergone successful testing at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and as the SBIR is wrapping up, we are left to ask the next question for the technology – how do we find out if this is a tool that end-users want and need?

NSPECT Symposium:

Jim and I met with Paul Dean, UNH’s Chief of Police/Executive Director of Public Safety, and members of his Emergency Management Division to discuss NSPECT.  Chief Dean and his team immediately described a number of scenarios where NSPECT could be used and suggested that we organize a symposium for the New Hampshire first responder community.

With assistance from Jim Lapolla (UNH Emergency Management) and the New Hampshire National Guard 12th Civil Support Team (CST), we held the “New Technology for Radiological Hazards and Threats in New Hampshire – A Symposium on the Detection of Radioactive and Fissile Materials for First Responders” event on October 18, 2012 at the NH National Guard Armory in Concord, NH, with over fifty attendees representing local and national first responder and homeland security-related agencies from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

The agenda included Dr. Jerry Kwasnik, Health Physicist for the State of NH, speaking on the state of affairs of current radioactive threats. Major Doug Fortier, Commander of the NH National Guard CST, discussed his unit’s technologies and practices for dealing with radioactive threats. Jim Ryan took the stage to present NSPECT and how the instrument could be deployed.

We also showed a video demonstration of NSPECT filmed by UNH Video Services, showing an abbreviated search exercise for a radioactive source, allowing us to highlight the benefits of our technology: minimizing personnel exposure to radioactive sources, accurately and expediently locating radioactive sources, and identifying the source material of the neutron and gamma-ray emissions.

Following the video, Chief Dean led a discussion about NSPECT and how it could be used. We heard from the fire service, military, state employees, FEMA, and others. The scenarios described were varied, and the “wish list” of features fascinating. It became clear that the core NSPECT technology could accomplish all of the needs described, and it now becomes a matter of adding additional features to fine-tune it for the first responder community.

Where do we go from here?

We have established a working group to take the discussion to the next level – finding a small number of NSPECT solutions to as many problems as possible so that any agency could find a version of NSPECT that would satisfy their needs with the best performance at the minimum cost. ORPC will also be finding a commercialization partner to license the technology and get it to those who need it most. Importantly, it is these same end-users who will be providing critical feedback along the way, making sure this is the instrument they need and want.

Please contact me directly by sending email to or call 603-862-4377 to discuss the NSPECT technology or other UNH innovations that may be of interest to you.

Photo Description and Credit - Imaging radioactivity in Durham, NH: The Quonset hut shown through the NSPECT GUI. The heat map overlay indicates the probability of two radiation sources located within the hut.  (Photo courtesy of Kristi Donahue, EOS, and Michigan Aerospace Corporation)

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