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CEE Professor Penumadu Leads Invention of New Material to Detect Neutron Radiation

DayakarDayakar Penumadu, CEE distinguished Fred N. Peebles Professor and Joint Institute for Advanced Materials Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee, and two of his former post-doctoral scholars have invented a new class of material that can be used to detect neutron radiation. This invention is protected by the United States Patent relating to polymer-based composite neutron scintillators which can be routinely made in a film, sheet, or fiber form that can be used for integrated functional and structural uses.

“This technology has exciting applications for security, infrastructure imaging, space exploration, as well as health science related applications,” says Professor Penumadu.

Because this material can be inexpensively produced in polymer composite form, it can be integrated into a fiber reinforced composite beam or a column inside a structure to help detect the presence of radiation. Alternatively, it might be used to help with border security in radiation detection from special nuclear materials while minimizing false alarms from radiation originating from medical isotopes, which for example will help separate threats of terrorism from cancer patients who have recently had radiation treatments using photon generating sources.

When the material is exposed to neutron radiation, it lights up. Developing this material was difficult simply for the fact that neutrons are neutral particles and only interact with the nuclei of elements, unlike x-rays which interact with electrons. The composite material uses lithium-containing particles that emit energy when they interact with neutrons, resulting in the emission of light from the polymer.

Prior to this discovery of a less expensive and more durable polymer composite scintillation material, use of single crystal-based scintillators were the main options to detect neutrons, which are too expensive for practical use or too delicate for use in a hygroscopic environment. Neutron imaging and diffraction is proving to be particularly useful to study steels at engineering bulk scale in extreme environments for evaluating defects and the state of residual stress. Furthermore, this technology will be useful for detector development.

Professor Penumadu looks forward to working closely with University of Tennessee Research Foundation for its commercialization.