Phoning Homeland Security

A Purdue inspired, upstart technology could transform millions of cell phones into handheld radiation detectors.

While researchers within Purdue’s School of Nuclear Engineering often find themselves working on the cutting edge of the highly regulated nuclear industry, it’s not often that they test the waters of entrepreneurship. But that’s all changing for Jere Jenkins and two of his colleagues as they search for the perfect sponsorship match for an already proven technology that could put radiation detectors in the palms of the public’s hands. Millions of them.

Jenkins, the director of Purdue’s radiation labs, brought his radiation expertise to a collaborative effort with Andrew Longman, a consulting instrumentation scientist, and Ephraim Fischbach, a professor of physics. The trio also attracted the attention of the state of Indiana in their quest to develop a system that would use a network of cell phones to detect and track radiation to help prevent terrorist attacks with radiological “dirty bombs” and nuclear weapons. Such a system could blanket the nation with millions of cell phones equipped with radiation sensors able to detect even light residues of radioactive material. Because cell phones already contain global positioning locators, the network of phones would serve as a tracking system.

“It’s the ubiquitous nature of cell phones and other portable electronic devices that give this system its power,” Fischbach says. “It’s meant to be small, cheap, and eventually built into laptops, personal digital assistants, and cell phones.”

And what’s even more encouraging for the researchers—the technology already works. “The proof of concept was already a success,” Jenkins says. With funding from Purdue’s Joint Transportation Research Program and representatives from the Indiana Department of Transportation on hand, the researchers tested the system last November using off-the-shelf technology and cellular data air time provided by AT&T. The demonstration showed that the small-scale system is capable of detecting a weak radiation source 15 feet from the sensors. “We set up a test source on campus, and people randomly walked around carrying these detectors,” Jenkins says. “The test was extremely safe, because we used a very weak, sealed radiation source, and we went through all the necessary approval processes required for radiological safety. This was a source much weaker than you would see with a radiological dirty bomb.”

Passive Detection
“The likely targets of a potential terrorist attack would be big cities with concentrated populations, and a system like this would make it very difficult for someone to go undetected with a radiological dirty bomb in such an area,” says Longman, the Purdue alumnus who originated the idea. “The more people are walking around with cell phones and PDAs, the easier it would be to detect and catch the perpetrator. We are asking the public to push for this.”

While the mind might race to images of thousands of business-clad New York City vigilantes combing Manhattan with their detecting cell phones held aloft, the researchers have a more passive technology in mind. The equipped phones would simply translate whatever radiation levels are picked up. “The sensors don’t really perform the detection task individually,” Fischbach explains. “The collective action of the sensors, combined with the software analysis, detects the source. The system would transmit signals to a data center, and the data center would transmit information to authorities without alerting the person carrying the phone. Say a car is transporting radioactive material for a bomb, and that car is driving down Meridian Street in Indianapolis or Fifth Avenue in New York. As the car passes people, their cell phones individually would send signals to a command center, allowing authorities to track the source.”

In addition to detecting radiological dirty bombs designed to scatter hazardous radioactive materials over an area, the system also could be used to detect nuclear weapons, which create a nuclear chain reaction that causes a powerful explosion. The system also could be used to detect spills of radioactive materials.

“It’s very difficult to completely shield a weapon’s radioactive material without making the device too heavy to transport,” Jenkins says.

The system could be trained to ignore known radiation sources, such as hospitals, and radiation from certain common items, such as bananas, which contain a radioactive isotope of potassium.

“The radiological dirty bomb or a suitcase nuclear weapon is going to give off higher levels of radiation than those background sources,” Fischbach says. “The system would be sensitive enough to detect these tiny levels of radiation, but it would be smart enough to discern which sources pose potential threats and which are harmless.”

Startup Success: Enablers and Blockers
The university is intent on backing the researchers (the Purdue Research Foundation owns patents associated with the technology licensed through the Office of Technology Commercialization), but there have been naysayers. While some may cry that this technology is the ultimate arrival of a governmental “Big Brother,” Jenkins and Fischbach simply believe that 100 million or so people, each equipped with a detector that may cost $100 to install, could be sold on the idea of its good citizenship.

The team is working with Karen White, senior technology manager at the Purdue Research Foundation, to commercialize the cell phone sensors. The professionals in the foundation’s Office of Technology Commercialization work with Purdue faculty, staff, and student entrepreneurs to provide the resources needed to better understand the processes of patents, copyrights, trademarks, and tangible research property to help develop and deliver an actual product or service.

For Fischbach and friends, they’re simply looking for a matchmaker. And whether it’s a federal department powerhouse, a national lab, or a forward-thinking industrial partner, the ultimate sponsor will be critical in building the robust technology needed to maximize the effectiveness of the Purdue brainchild.

Jenkins says the larger funding source would help with the scale-up phase. “If we can show that we have a large-scalable and workable concept, I think these phones could be on the market in three to five years.”

The big payoff, says Jenkins, beyond the potential moneymaker of a technology-inspired idea, is the added layer of defense across an enormous area of the country. And as we look to avoid the worst-case scenarios, this is one idea that could be worth phoning home about.

- William Meiners with Emil Venere