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SMRC 059

A tractor-trailer truck awaits a cargo container at a port, its driver oblivious to the fact that part of the shipment has been intentionally mislabeled to disguise its radioactive nature. But a new type of device designed to detect such malicious goods halts the scheme before any harm can be done.

While this scene may sound like the start of the latest Hollywood thriller, the reality is that any number of groups would love the opportunity to get their hands on radioactive materials, making the threat all too real. Thankfully, the technology to thwart them is improving.

Assistant Professor Mariya Zhuravleva
Assistant Professor Mariya Zhuravleva

“Scintillators are already in use as a means to detect radiation, as their properties cause them to glow in its presence,” said Assistant Professor Mariya Zhuravleva of the Department of Material Science and Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “What we want to do is to take the next step to improve their performance while lowering costs, which should increase their implementation.”

Zhuravleva is leading an initiative backed by the Department of Homeland Security and playing a key role in another, both aimed at improving scanning and detection of illicit radioactive materials. The Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD) within DHS has a particular interest in both ideas, which were two of only seven projects in the US chosen for funding.

In the first project, for which Zhuravleva’s team was awarded $2.4 million over five years with UT named the lead institution, the researchers will design new materials based on a concept known as high entropy, in which materials have a disordered structure, allowing them to be manipulated and combined with other materials to form specifically tailored new compounds. The team will create a new class of scintillators using rare earth materials with the goal of developing a new type of X-ray scanner for detecting radioactive shipments, which are often heavily shielded to hide their true nature.

The second project, led by Radiation Monitoring Devices (RMD) of Watertown, Massachusetts, will focus on developing thallium scintillators. The scintillators currently used for scanning international cargo, cadmium tungstate and cesium iodide, have problems with cost and sensitivity, respectively. The new thallium scintillators should help solve both of those issues.

Zhuravleva will serve as lead principal investigator for the university’s team, which will receive $945,000 over five years as a subcontractor on that project.

“This work has the potential to be a win-win, as it strengthens our national security while at the same time helping develop the workforce of tomorrow in this key area through the research and training that our students will help conduct,” said Zhuravleva. “That hands-on experience in detection, design, and development will prove a vital part of the CWMD’s continued vigilance in the years to come.”

Research Professor and Scintillation Materials Research Center Director Charles Melcher and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Kurt Sickafus round out UT’s team on the first project, and Melcher also joins Zhuravleva on the second.


David Goddard, (865-974-0683​,