Ever since the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster, there has understandably been an upsurge in the sale of consumer radiation-detecting devices. Most of these gadgets are variations on the Geiger counter, in that they alert the user to the presence and level of radiation, but not the type of radiation – which is very important to know. Researchers at Oregon State University are hoping to address that situation by developing a handheld device that will additionally tell its users what type of radionuclide is creating the radiation, and whether it poses a risk.

The device is actually a miniaturized gamma ray spectrometer, and is claimed to combine digital electronics with a new type of "scintillation detector." The latter typically combines an electronic light sensor with a scintillator, which is a material that luminesces when exposed to radiation.

The inclusion of the scintillation detector also allows for the device to be small, durable, lightweight, energy-efficient, and to be able to operate at room temperature.

Several models are planned, including one for use around the home. It could be used to check for and analyze radiation emanating from things like soil, granite countertops and concrete walls. The device will also be able to transmit data wirelessly, allowing users to set one of the devices in a given location and then monitor it via the internet.

"Radiation is a natural part of our lives that many people don’t understand, but in some cases there’s also a need to measure it accurately in case something could be a health concern," said associate professor of nuclear engineering, Abi Farsoni. "This technology will accomplish both those goals."

Once commercialized, it is hoped that the device will sell for under US$150.

Additionally, because the smaller-than-a-golf-ball sized system is said to actually be more accurate and efficient than many professional-grade gamma ray spectrometers, the technology may also find its way into big-league applications such as scientific research, medicine, and emergency response.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research.