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The Power of the Muon

May. 7, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By Stanton D. Sloane   |   Comments
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When the 9/11 Commission recommended, and Congress enacted into law, the requirement to scan 100 percent of cargo containers bound for the United States, it was recognized that technology did not exist at the time to enable compliance, but Congress foresaw that it would ultimately be developed.

Cargo containers offer an attractive mechanism for terrorism. A rogue nation or motivated terrorist group need not invest in intercontinental ballistic missiles; it can simply conceal a weapon in a shipping container and falsify associated documentation to enable delivery to a U.S. port.

Some 16 million cargo containers arrive at U.S. ports annually, and a very small percentage are being scanned before arrival. Current scanning technology has severe limitations when it comes to detecting heavily shielded nuclear materials, and certain types of cargo cannot be X-rayed.

The world's supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and our adversaries only have to be successful once, whereas those trying to protect us have to be successful 100 percent of the time - not good odds.

Securing the lifeline of the economy - the global cargo supply chain - entails more than safeguarding cargo containers; it's about protecting people, communities and our very way of life. The stakes are extremely high. Last year, in a report titled "The Global Challenge of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Terrorism," the State Department said the attempted smuggling of weapons-grade uranium continued to raise alarm bells.

The 9/11 Commission was prescient not just in identifying the risk to our global supply chain, it was also right on target with its anticipation that the right technology for the job would be developed, in this case through a public-private partnership that has yielded a technical breakthrough called the Multi-Mode Passive Detection System, or MMPDS, developed by Decision Sciences International Corp.

Scanning equipment can generally be classified into two main categories: active and passive. Active systems include X-ray and radiation technologies that apply radiation or energy to the environment and may pose health risks to people, plants, animals and other organics.

MMPDS is passive, meaning there are no radiation or safety issues. The technology simply uses existing particles - cosmic rays called muons - to do the scanning and therefore, personnel are never exposed to harmful radiation. Containers of food and other perishables can also be scanned with no risk to the contents or where humans are present. The system uses only what Mother Nature provides - natural cosmic ray energy - and requires no safe zones or dedicated buildings.

Muons are subatomic particles similar to electrons, and every minute approximately 10,000 muons rain down on every meter of the Earth's surface. They're created by cosmic rays entering the Earth's atmosphere.

Muons are relatively high in mass for a fundamental particle with no substructure. They are 200 times as massive as their sibling particle, the electron. Muons rain down continuously on the Earth at near the speed of light. In fact, about 5,000 muons per minute are going through each of us every minute of every day of our lives.

The MMPDS scanner harnesses this natural phenomenon by detecting and tracking the muons as they pass through scanned objects.

The system detects subtle changes in trajectory of the muons as they penetrate materials and that change in direction correlates with material density. Since muons arrive at all angles, the system can compute a 3-D image of objects by combining multiple muon tracks. Nuclear threats, such as uranium and plutonium, are very dense, so they are very easy to find using MMPDS. Because of their unique properties, muons penetrate the densest of materials, like lead for example, so MMPDS will see through even heavy shielding and detect nuclear or radiological threats hidden within.

The development history of MMPDS and the technology behind it is a perfect example of the application of physics research to practical solutions for serious issues. Cosmic ray muons were discovered in the 1930s and have been the subject of a great deal of basic physics research. Even with this long history, practical applications were not found for this abundant and free source of charged particles until MMPDS was developed. A team of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, led by Chris Morris, originally demonstrated the possibility of using charged particles to generate images of objects. Seeing a ubiquitous, free source of high-energy charged particles in cosmic ray muons, they began looking into the feasibility of muon-based imaging.

Michael Sossong, Decision Sciences' vice president of research and development, worked with the subatomic physics group at Los Alamos for nearly a decade during the early stages of the technology development prior to joining the company, where he then led additional development and commercialization of the technology.

Substantial private sector investment funded the further development, which resulted in what is now a practical, effective and operational system. MMPDS was launched in the market by Decision Sciences in August 2012.

Enhancement and adaptation of the technology continues with applications for detection of other contraband, such as drugs and explosives, well underway. Additionally, there are many related applications where cosmic ray particles can provide solutions.

Stanton D. Sloane, the president and CEO of Decision Sciences International Corp., has diverse experience in private industry, international business and the military.

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