The cleanup of sites contaminated by radioactivity, primarily from the historic production of nuclear weapons during and after World War II, continues to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Researchers have now invented a new type of radiation detection and measurement device that they say will be particularly useful for such cleanup efforts by making the process faster, more accurate and less expensive.

The new device was developed over 10 years by members of the engineering faculty at Oregon State University (OSU), David Hamby, a professor of health physics, and Abi Farsoni, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering. Unlike other detectors, their spectrometer is able to measure and quantify both gamma and beta radiation at the same time.

“Before this two different types of detectors and other chemical tests were needed in a time-consuming process,” said Hamby. “This system will be able to provide accurate results in 15 minutes that previously might have taken half a day. That saves steps, time and money.”

The spectrometer can quickly tell the type and amount of radionuclides that are present in something like a soil sample – contaminants such as cesium 137 or strontium 90 – that were produced from reactor operations. And it can distinguish between gamma rays and beta particles, which is necessary to determine the level of contamination.

“Cleaning up radioactive contamination is something we can do, but the process is costly, and often the question when working in the field is how clean is clean enough,” Hamby said. “At some point the remaining level of radioactivity is not a concern. So we need the ability to do frequent and accurate testing to protect the environment while also controlling costs.”

Aside from the testing of cleanup sites, the researchers say that their system could also be used in monitoring processes in the nuclear energy industry, and could possibly have medical applications in the use of radioactive tracers.

The researchers have been granted a patent for their new type of radiation spectrometer and say the first production of devices will begin soon. Believing the market for these instruments may ultimately be global, a Corvallis, Oregon-based spin-off company, Avicenna Instruments, has been created based on the OSU research.