Skip to main content

Scientists use lasers to detect weapons-grade uranium from miles away

Nuclear reactor Kodak
Image used with permission by copyright holder
The Cold War is decades behind us but nuclear arms are still an unfortunate reality. From afar, it isn’t always clear who is developing such weapons and intelligence has been known to be imprecise, leading to international finger-wagging at best and wars at worst.

But a team of researchers from the University of Michigan has turned to a technique used by the Mars rover to trace chemical weapons, using lasers to detect weapons-grade uranium at a distance.

“The primary obstacle to developing a nuclear weapons capability is getting hold of the right material,” Igor Jovanovic, professor and lead researcher, told Digital Trends. Of the two isotopes most commonly used in nuclear weapons, one — uranium-235 — is difficult to detect since it occasionally emits radiation.

“Our goal has been to find a way to detect this material,” Jovanovic said, “preferably at a distance, which is very difficult or even impossible using the available methods.”

The researchers were inspired after certain laser-based sensing methods — “specifically, laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy” — showed success, including by the Mars rover identifying material compositions on the red planet.

Jovanovic and his team turned to laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy and a phenomenon called laser filamentation, which enables them to measure from far away.

First, they fire laser pulses at an unknown material. The lasers interact with the material’s surface and produces a micro-plasma. This plasma interacts with oxygen in the air to produce excited oxide molecules that emit specific wavelengths of light, which can be detected and analyzed to infer what molecules, atoms, or isotopes are present.

The secret to the precise detection is in the isotopes. “The reason why we can make the measurements of isotopes more accurately is because we measure the light from molecules of uranium oxide,” Jovanovic explained. “It turns out that we can see a greater difference between different isotopes in uranium,” such as uranium-238 and uranium-235, “if we observe the emission from molecules rather than from atoms.”

In the past, laser filamentation can detect some materials from several miles away. For this to work, the uranium would need to be exposed in some way. For example, traces of uranium may be left in the dirt surrounding a manufacturing plant and the researchers would need to develop a more efficient system for light collection. Jovanovic suggested tools and tricks used by astronomers may help his team accomplish this.

First, the technique could be used for the obvious purpose of monitoring uranium production sites, ensuring that nations abide by nuclear treaties.

The second application could be in something called “nuclear forensics.” Jovanovic explained: “In nuclear forensics, the goal is to measure the properties of a measured material, such as uranium enrichment, accurately but also rapidly so that a proper attribution can be made and subsequent action taken. For example, in the case of a nuclear detonation, one would want to quickly measure the composition of explosion debris in a relatively inaccessible, high-radiation environment.”

Editors' Recommendations

Dyllan Furness
Dyllan Furness is a freelance writer from Florida. He covers strange science and emerging tech for Digital Trends, focusing…
This AI cloned my voice using just three minutes of audio
acapela group voice cloning ad

There's a scene in Mission Impossible 3 that you might recall. In it, our hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) tackles the movie's villain, holds him at gunpoint, and forces him to read a bizarre series of sentences aloud.

"The pleasure of Busby's company is what I most enjoy," he reluctantly reads. "He put a tack on Miss Yancy's chair, and she called him a horrible boy. At the end of the month, he was flinging two kittens across the width of the room ..."

Read more
Digital Trends’ Top Tech of CES 2023 Awards
Best of CES 2023 Awards Our Top Tech from the Show Feature

Let there be no doubt: CES isn’t just alive in 2023; it’s thriving. Take one glance at the taxi gridlock outside the Las Vegas Convention Center and it’s evident that two quiet COVID years didn’t kill the world’s desire for an overcrowded in-person tech extravaganza -- they just built up a ravenous demand.

From VR to AI, eVTOLs and QD-OLED, the acronyms were flying and fresh technologies populated every corner of the show floor, and even the parking lot. So naturally, we poked, prodded, and tried on everything we could. They weren’t all revolutionary. But they didn’t have to be. We’ve watched enough waves of “game-changing” technologies that never quite arrive to know that sometimes it’s the little tweaks that really count.

Read more
Digital Trends’ Tech For Change CES 2023 Awards
Digital Trends CES 2023 Tech For Change Award Winners Feature

CES is more than just a neon-drenched show-and-tell session for the world’s biggest tech manufacturers. More and more, it’s also a place where companies showcase innovations that could truly make the world a better place — and at CES 2023, this type of tech was on full display. We saw everything from accessibility-minded PS5 controllers to pedal-powered smart desks. But of all the amazing innovations on display this year, these three impressed us the most:

Samsung's Relumino Mode
Across the globe, roughly 300 million people suffer from moderate to severe vision loss, and generally speaking, most TVs don’t take that into account. So in an effort to make television more accessible and enjoyable for those millions of people suffering from impaired vision, Samsung is adding a new picture mode to many of its new TVs.
[CES 2023] Relumino Mode: Innovation for every need | Samsung
Relumino Mode, as it’s called, works by adding a bunch of different visual filters to the picture simultaneously. Outlines of people and objects on screen are highlighted, the contrast and brightness of the overall picture are cranked up, and extra sharpness is applied to everything. The resulting video would likely look strange to people with normal vision, but for folks with low vision, it should look clearer and closer to "normal" than it otherwise would.
Excitingly, since Relumino Mode is ultimately just a clever software trick, this technology could theoretically be pushed out via a software update and installed on millions of existing Samsung TVs -- not just new and recently purchased ones.

Read more