Startup touts new approach to detecting radiation

With defense experts looking for better ways to prevent nuclear threats from entering the U.S., a startup in Boston may have the answer.

The company, Silverside Detectors, is rethinking nuclear detection, touting its technology as the “building block” for urban nuclear detection systems.

Silverside’s founder Andrew Inglis says detectors today are in need of an upgrade. Detectors stationed at ports and borders, he told, use helium-3 gas to detect neutrons emitted from nuclear materials. However, helium-3 is a limited resource that is both hard to obtain and prone to misreadings.

In contrast, Silverside’s technology employs lithium, a metal which captures neutrons. The company’s neutron detector uses thin sheets of lithium in a gas-filled multi-wire chamber.

"One problem with [current] detectors is they get confused very easily - they are very delicate devices,” Inglis said, adding that Silverside is developing a low-cost device that doesn’t get confused. Current detectors cost around $100,000, although Silverside estimates its detectors will run around $5,000.

Sarah Haig, a co-founder at Silverside, says that the technology can analyze threats more accurately. “Our detectors are like a sandwich,” she explained. “There's the bread that is enriched lithium, which is a metal that actually captures a neutron -- inside [the detector] is a gas region with some wires."

Current nuclear detectors are also clunky and easy to spot at the border, whereas Silverside describes its flat-panel-style detectors as discreet and compact.

Inglis says that the thin and compact size of the company’s technology enables effective threat detection. For example, the lithium neutron detector can be customized to a backpack size for mobile searching at events. For searching wider areas, a larger version of the technology can be mounted in vehicles, while arrays of detectors can be deployed in concrete barriers alongside roads for discreet, continuous traffic monitoring.

By combining the different versions of its technology, Silverside says that networks of protection can be set up in urban areas. “We need to have a web, kind of a large network,” said Haig. “We need to have the webs in urban areas and high risk points -- if you have detectors at exit ramps on highways going into urban areas you have a really good chance of sniffing out smuggled nuclear material as its going into a city.”

Budget-friendly nuclear detection doesn’t just benefit our homeland. It’s also good news for developing countries struggling to contain material at nuclear test sites, according to Silverside.

Both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security have expressed interest in Silverside’s technology.