Argonne uses RFID to monitor nuclear shipments

Not content with simply tracking the location and contents of drums that contain nuclear materials, researchers at the Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory have developed a radio frequency identification tag that can also monitor and report environmental conditions.

"RFID technology is ideally suited for management of nuclear materials during both storage and transportation," said Yung Liu, Argonne's senior nuclear engineer and RFID project manager. "Key information about the nuclear materials is acquired in real time."

Liu's team used circuits from Savi Technologies as the basis for the customized RFID tags and added sensors and software to collect and manage the data.

Liu said there were two major obstacles to overcome in developing the system. "First, we needed to find out how radiation resistant the electronics parts of the tags were," Liu said. "The second issue was battery life."

The team tested radiation resistance by exposing the tags to gamma radiation. The tags were radiated for three months and started to show signs of degradation only at the end of that time. "We figured that given how the trucks are designed and the level of exposure that these tags can last about 17 years," Liu said. "That is sufficient for our applications."

The problem of battery life was resolved by integrating four lithium batteries with each tag. That raises the cost of each sensor to about $200, but it ensures operation for more than 10 years.

The Argonne team also integrated an array of environmental sensors to monitor temperature, acceleration and humidity. "The Argonne system can simultaneously monitor thousands of drums 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Liu said. "Any abnormal situation, such as a loss of seal, a sudden shock, a rise in temperature or humidity, can trigger an alarm for immediate action."

Four slots remain open in the devices to allow for additional sensors, such as for detecting radiation and toxins.

The system was tested in an exercise in April 2008 in which tagged canisters were driven from the Argonne facility in Illinois to Aiken, S.C., and then to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The team started working on real-world implementations after the demonstration's success. "The first one is already completed," Liu said. "We configured an RFID temperature-monitoring system for drums at the DOE's Nevada test site. We are currently working on several other implementation projects, one of which is to look at the transport of plutonium across the country."

The team also has applied for a patent to cover the system, and it expects the costs to drop further as the equipment is produced in higher volume. "Obviously, we are not equipped to do contract manufacturing," Liu said. "But we already have inquiries for a large number of tags. The costs will come down when you have a large volume."

You can watch a video of the system at www.media.anl.gov/TechnicalServices/DIS/RFID.wmv.

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