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 lead to better detection of radiological threats and other weapons of mass destruction in cargo containers.

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

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

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, Ledoux said. It can detect all elements except hydrogen and helium, he said.

In other words, the technology can identify the nuclear isotopic composition, shape and density of an object, whereas X-ray technology can identify only the density and shape of an object, according to the company’s Web site. For example, the technology could 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. NRFI technology could detect even an anomalous quantity of shielding, such as lead, in a container, which could tip off cargo inspectors.

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

“We’re the next step,” Ledoux said. “We’ve been asked to design onto a time scale…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 programmed to identify certain materials. An operator would receive automatic alerts if, for example, the scanner detected a certain mass of shielding material or uranium. The more a scanner measures an object, the greater the accuracy would be, he said.

In the future, the technology could be used to detect explosives which could be used to detonate a nuclear device, chemical agents or contraband such as drugs, Ledoux said.

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 2005, DHS officials deemed the feasibility measurement successful and awarded the company the additional $1.6 million for continued development. Ledoux said his company has also invested an additional $2 million in developing the technology but is still seeking additional private funding.


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