Finding nuclear material smuggled in on of the thousands of shipping containers that arrive in the United States each day is not easy. Radiation detectors exist, but they aren't useful for mass screenings and can't distinguish between the amount and type of material in the container.
To help get a handle on the problem, researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratories have developed an X-ray laser that can detect radioactive substances, a proof of concept that could be developed into a future detection system.
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The scientists tested the laser on two closed containers - one with nuclear material inside and one without. They also placed two other materials into the shipping containers: a piece of metal and a piece of plastic, 0.3-microns thick, that had been chemically altered to have its hydrogen atoms replaced with deuterium. Deuterium is basically hydrogen that instead of having one proton in the nucleus, it has a proton and a neutron.
They fired the laser called a TRIDENT at the shipping container. The laser, which generates 200 terawatts of power, was so powerful that when it came into contact with the deuterium molecules in the plastic, it pushed the molecule's nucleus - called a deuteron - right out of the plastic, at about 10 percent the speed of light, or 18,600 miles per second. Many of those deuterons then smacked into the atoms of the metal target nearby.