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Jung and Kar’s $200K NSF Grant Could Commercialize Low-Cost Radiation Detectors

July 19, 2017

Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Professor Yung Joon Jung, along with co-principal investigator Associate Professor Swastik Kar of the Department of Physics, has been awarded a $200K grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for an interdisciplinary research project that uses nanotechnology to create highly sensitive and marketable detectors of radioactivity and nuclear radiation.

Jung and Kar’s research began from their work on the development of an ion sensor using carbon nanotubes, which they discovered was extremely sensitive to charged particles (ions). They began to explore the ion sensor’s viability in detecting radiation, which they thought may have potential for applications at the consumer and government levels.

“This innovation came about as part of our routine research on carbon nanomaterials,” says Associate Professor Kar. “Once we discovered this phenomenon and saw how sensitive we could make these detectors, we began to look for application use cases.”

In addition to the recent NSF grant, Kar and Jung also received a grant for the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps), a program that helps scientists and engineers move their research beyond laboratory walls and toward commercialization. They brought on College of Engineering alumnus Dan Esposito (MIE 2008) as their NSF I-Corps entrepreneurial lead to spearhead the project for their start-up that is currently in the process of bring formed, called Guardion.

“Through I-Corps, we went through a rigorous training program in Washington, DC, to try to turn these prototype radiation detectors into a business,” said Esposito. “We were given a budget to talk with high-level potential customers from different industries, which allowed us to build a business plan based on their feedback and advice.”

Because of what they learned in I-Corps, Guardion sees viability for their low-cost, networked radiation detectors in three distinct markets:

  • At-home radon detection for consumers
  • Personal radiation dosimeters for employees at high risk of exposure, such as in hospitals and nuclear power plants
  • In homeland security through large-scale deployment in the event of a nuclear emergency

In spring 2017, Guardion applied to MassChallenge, a not-for-profit, global network of business accelerators that gives out over $2,000,000 in equity-free cash prizes to help high-impact and high-potential start-ups. They are now a finalist in the 2017 MassChallenge; if they take home the prize at the final competition in November, they could win up to $100,000 in seed money to continue moving Guardion toward commercialization stage.

For additional funding, Guardion has also been invited to apply for a $200,000 Technology in Space prize proffered by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and Boeing to fund research onboard the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory.

For Professor Jung, the development of this research and the possibility of bringing Guardion’s devices to the public is the culmination of years of crossing disciplinary boundaries.

“Associate Professor Kar and I have been collaborating together for more than a decade,” says Professor Jung “This is a great example of how engineering and science work together to create innovations that can help everyone, from a single individual to an entire community, stay safe from harm.”

Abstract Source: NSF

This PFI: AIR Technology Translation project focuses on translating a novel nanotechnology-based charged-particle (ion) detection method for a range of radioactivity and nuclear radiation sensing and monitoring applications. The project will result in prototype detectors of radiation that is commonly associated with nuclear and radioactive materials, such as gamma and X-rays, as well as alpha and beta particles. The prototype detectors will be ultrasensitive with significantly reduced size, weight, cost and power-consumption compared to current technologies that involve Geiger-based counters, scintillation detectors, and high-purity germanium (HPGe) detectors. These new detectors have the potential to enable disruptive advances in early/rapid nuclear threat detection for homeland security, safety applications such as border security and control, city-scale networkable monitoring, domestic nuclear power plant and medical facilities monitoring, and remote sensing via unmanned vehicles for military operations. 

The prototype detectors will utilize a novel low-power high-amplification sensing mechanism that has been recently discovered to be a property of nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene. This will enable high-sensitivity detectors with reduced size, cost and power consumption compared to conventional radiation detectors that utilize high ionization volumes, high-voltage avalanche breakdown, and/or expensive and difficult-to-miniaturize mechanisms to obtain highly sensitive detection. This will be achieved by optimizing the design of a radiation detector that houses these sensors in a miniature chamber that senses any nuclear radiation passing through it. The shape, size and architecture of the housing chamber, along with the type of materials will be optimized for maximum response. Along with this, detectors will be developed for various types of radiation so that they are capable of responding to diverse radioactive or nuclear events. The aim will be to develop detectors that are capable of rapidly detecting ultra-low signals (at a cost and degree of portability currently not achievable by conventional techniques) for early/rapid threat detection.

The project will engage graduate students to design, fabricate, test, and optimize these detectors, which will train them in advanced nanomanufacturing skills, beneficial for their future career endeavors. In addition, the students will be engaged in activities to understand the market need and scale-up manufacturing constraints. The successful development and demonstration of these detectors will be an important step towards commercialization, possibly through a start-up venture. The long-term aim of this project will be to address low-cost networkable devices capable of serving from building-scale to city-scale monitoring, and to provide real-time data for early action that can significantly reduce the impact of a nuclear or radioactive event.