DHS funds advanced cargo-screening technology

Homeland Security Department officials have awarded a Massachusetts-based company an additional $1.6 million to continue development of scanning technology that could potentially better detect radiological threats and other weapons of mass destruction in cargo containers.

Robert Ledoux, president and founder of Passport Systems, said his company has successfully completed feasibility testing of nuclear resonance fluorescence imaging (NRFI) technology and will now develop a preliminary design of a prototype in the next few months.

If the preliminary design is accepted then it could taken another 18 to 24 months until final design and construction of a prototype that would be tested in a real-world setting, he said.

The NRFI technology, which was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and exclusively licensed to Passport Systems, uses a high energy X-Ray beam to excite nuclei in order to examine re-emitted photons for every isotope for every element, he said. It can detect all elements except for hydrogen and helium, he added.

In other words, the technology can identify the nuclear isotopic composition, shape and density of an object whereas X-ray technology can only identify the density and shape of an object, according to the company's Web site. For example, the technology could potentially be able to distinguish between Uranium-238 and Uranium-235, which can be made into a weapon.

Ledoux said highly-enriched Uranium-235 is difficult to detect and fairly simple to shield. The NRFI technology could even detect an anomalous quantity of shielding, such as lead, in a container that could tip off inspectors that something might be there.

Currently, the next generation of scanners are high energy X-ray scanners that have greater penetration but only provide two-dimensional picture and cannot identify the elements of an object, he said.

'We're the next step,' he said. 'We've been asked to design onto a timescale ... consistent to detecting - if needed - every container. So the design goal is to get a 40-foot container of average density through our scanner on the order of 15 to 20 seconds. That's fast.'

Ledoux envisions an automated prototype scanner that is programmed to identify certain materials. An operator would receive automatic alerts if, for example, there's a certain mass of shielding material or uranium was detected. He also said the more a scanner measures an object the greater the accuracy would be.

Down the road, he said the technology could even be used to detect explosives, which could be used to detonate a nuclear device, chemical agents or even contraband, such as drugs.

Passport Systems, which was established in December 2002, received an initial $1.6 million from the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency nearly a year ago to measure the feasibility of the technology. In December, DHS offcials deemed the feasibility measurement successful and awarded the company the additional $1.6 million for continued developoment. Ledoux said his company has also invested an additional $2 million into developing the technology but is still seeking additional private funding.

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