New Algorithm May Help Airport Scans Detect Nuclear Smuggling

Security personnel examine a bag containing knives during a 2006 X-ray scanner demonstration at Glasgow Airport in the United Kingdom. Scientists may have discovered how they can reprogram X-ray scanners to more effectively spot uranium and plutonium in airplane luggage.
National Journal
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Diane Barnes
April 15, 2014, 10:18 a.m.

Sci­ent­ists may have dis­covered how they can re­pro­gram X-ray scan­ners to more ef­fect­ively spot bomb-us­able nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als in air­line bags.

Com­mon X-ray sys­tems might be­come more cap­able of identi­fy­ing tiny amounts of urani­um and plutoni­um with help from a new com­puter al­gorithm writ­ten in the United States, the Amer­ic­an In­sti­tute of Phys­ics an­nounced on Tues­day.

The code is based on a close ex­am­in­a­tion of how ra­di­ation passes through vari­ous sub­stances and how the res­ult­ant X-ray im­age should look, ac­cord­ing to a de­vel­op­ment team at Uni­versity of Texas-Aus­tin and the Pa­cific North­w­est Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory in Wash­ing­ton state.

“With that in hand, we ap­plied an ‘in­verse al­gorithm,’ vary­ing the com­pos­i­tion of the ob­ject un­til the pre­dicted im­age matched the meas­ured one,” ac­cord­ing to Mark Dein­ert, an as­sist­ant pro­fess­or of mech­an­ic­al en­gin­eer­ing at the Uni­versity of Texas-Aus­tin. He and his team then “reg­u­lar­ized” the al­gorithm “to ad­apt­ively en­hance its abil­ity to dis­crim­in­ate ma­ter­i­als,” ac­cord­ing to the news re­lease.

The group now plans to try scal­ing up the tech­nique, pos­sibly for use in “high-en­ergy X-ray sys­tems” to mon­it­or com­pli­ance with arms-con­trol agree­ments, said Dein­ert, who co-au­thored the study.

The team’s full find­ings are sched­uled for re­lease this week in the Journ­al of Ap­plied Phys­ics.

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