Physicist's research aids battle against drug smuggling

May 2, 2014
Physicist Simon Albright is investigating the technology named Pulsed Fast Neutron Analysis.

Global security and the fight against crimes such as drug smuggling and weapons trafficking would be massively aided by an improved method of scanning cargoes for concealed items. A technology for this, based on the use of neutron beams, exists but is beset by problems. But a University of Huddersfield researcher is now playing his part in solving some of them.

Physicist Simon Albright is currently completing his PhD in the University's International Institute for Accelerator Applications (IIAA). The technology he is investigating is named Pulsed Fast Neutron Analysis and it has enormous potential.

Most X-rays, currently used for probing cargoes, produce two-dimensional images in which concealed items can be hard to detect. But after computer analysis, an image produced by scanning can be exceptionally clear and easy to interpret.

"All the clutter, all the clothes and shoes, are taken out of the image and the operator sees only the possible threats, such as drugs or bombs," says Simon.

It is vital that neutron beam scanning become a practical possibility, he adds.

"At the moment we just don't have good enough image recognition. With current technology, if someone brings in a container that mostly consists of potatoes, for example, you would not be able to tell that in the middle they have hidden a huge block of cocaine."

However, although the theory of Pulsed Fast Neutron Analysis is well established, the challenge is to produce compact, safe scanners. Devices known as sealed tube neutron generators do exist, in the form of metal tubes that require the use of an isotope of hydrogen named tritium. But its radioactivity means that strict controls are necessary.

"You can't have these sitting around at a port, running through a few hundred of them a year. They would have to be stored in a very secure warehouse, which is simply not practical," says Simon.

Cost-effective neutron scanners

Simon's PhD project – supervised by Professor Rebecca Seviour of the IIAA – investigates the use of safer neutron sources that generate minimal radioactivity. Oxygen, lithium and beryllium are among the safer alternatives to tritium. Simon is also examining lower and more variable energies of beam, so that compact, cost-effective scanners would become a more practical possibility.

Simon studied for his Masters in physics at the University of Lancaster before relocating to Huddersfield for funded PhD study. In addition to research, he is also passionate about explaining and creating enthusiasm for science to the widest possible audience. This led him to take part in the nuclear zone of the science outreach programme named I'm a Scientist Get Me Out Of Here.

This gives school pupils the opportunity to talk to scientists and get answers to their questions about science or the work of scientists. Simon was one of five physicists who took part in live chats and responded to scores of online questions from curious youngsters. For example, he had to field a large number of queries about black holes and other subjects that took him out of his immediate area of expertise.

In an online vote that followed the event, Simon came in at third place, behind two scientists who had considerable previous experience of this kind of outreach. But he enjoyed the exercise and wants to do more of the same.

"I love enthusing people about physics, addressing my work to people and getting them to understand it."

Explore further: Researchers suggest changes to theories regarding neutron star crust structure

Related Stories

Researchers build bench size laser-pulsed neutron source

February 1, 2013

(—Researchers from Institut für Kernphysik in Germany, working with colleagues from Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory, have succeeded in building a compact neutron source small enough ...

Simple, like a neutron star

March 25, 2014

For astrophysicists neutron stars are extremely complex astronomical objects. Research conducted with the collaboration of SISSA and published in the journal Physical Review Letters demonstrates that in certain respects these ...

New kind of microscope uses neutrons

October 4, 2013

Researchers at MIT, working with partners at NASA, have developed a new concept for a microscope that would use neutrons—subatomic particles with no electrical charge—instead of beams of light or electrons to create high-resolution ...

Centaurus A: A new look at an old friend

February 6, 2014

( —Just weeks after NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory began operations in 1999, the telescope pointed at Centaurus A (Cen A, for short). This galaxy, at a distance of about 12 million light-years from Earth, contains ...

Recommended for you

Complete design of a silicon quantum computer chip unveiled

December 15, 2017

Research teams all over the world are exploring different ways to design a working computing chip that can integrate quantum interactions. Now, UNSW engineers believe they have cracked the problem, reimagining the silicon ...

Single-photon detector can count to four

December 15, 2017

Engineers have shown that a widely used method of detecting single photons can also count the presence of at least four photons at a time. The researchers say this discovery will unlock new capabilities in physics labs working ...

Real-time observation of collective quantum modes

December 15, 2017

A cylindrical rod is rotationally symmetric - after any arbitrary rotation around its axis it always looks the same. If an increasingly large force is applied to it in the longitudinal direction, however, it will eventually ...

A shoe-box-sized chemical detector

December 15, 2017

A chemical sensor prototype developed at the University of Michigan will be able to detect "single-fingerprint quantities" of substances from a distance of more than 100 feet away, and its developers are working to shrink ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet May 02, 2014
After 10 years + of decisive military presence in the one country responsible for 70% of the world's opium supply, America is awash with cheap heroin. With such a presence in Afghanistan, the opium fields could have been either largely eradicated or at the minimum disrupted. Conclusion? Large scale drug traffic is actually sanctioned by governments. President Karzia's brother was a notorious drug trafficker.
Point is: The drug trade is sanctioned by those in office. The "war on drugs" is both a sham and a "growth industry" along with the attendant offshoot "industry" called the judicial/corrections industry.
As far as weapons smuggling goes, three words explain much: "fast and furious". Eric Holder, nor his minions have yet to be held accountable despite the resulting death of government agents or the untold innocent victims caught in the crossfire.
No technology can stop smuggling if its the government itself running the game. Window dressing made for public consumption.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.