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

Nuclear reactor Kodak
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.”


Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers to add Dancers and the Hrothgar

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers will add a second set of new jobs and races to the MMORPG, namely Dancers and the Hrothgar. The Dancers use throwing weapons and can buff teammates, while the Hrothgar are a male-only, leonin race.

Here's where Xur is and what he has for wares this week in Destiny 2: Forsaken

The weekly vendor in Destiny 2: Forsaken always brings Exotic weapons and armor, some of the toughest loot to find in the game. Here's everything you need to know to track down Xur: Where he is, when he shows up, and what he's stocking.

Looking to keep prying eyes at bay? Here's how to hide photos on your iPhone

People take tons of photos using their smartphones, but not all are meant to be shared or seen. Luckily, hiding photos on your iOS device is easy, whether you want to use built-in utilities or apps with added security.

The best PUBG weapons to win you that coveted chicken dinner

Which weapons in PUBG are worth the time to scout out and fit with attachments? Which are going to help you become the last player standing? We've got the answers you need in our best PUBG weapons guide.
Emerging Tech

Scientists use drone to map Icelandic cave in preparation for Mars exploration

Researchers from the SETI Institute and Astrobotic Technology have demonstrated a way that astronauts may be able to map Martian caves using a Lidar-equipped drone that can travel autonomously without GPS.
Emerging Tech

A 3D printer the size of a small barn will produce entire homes in Saudi Arabia

If you’re looking for a 3D printer that can comfortably fit on the side of your desk… well, Danish company Cobod International’s enormous new 3D house printer probably isn’t for you.

Need a ride? Amazon is slashing prices on popular electric scooters

If you’re not much of a cyclist or if you’re looking for a lazier way to zip about town, an electric scooter should be right up your alley. Two of our favorites, the foldable Glion Dolly and the eco-friendly Razor scooter, are on sale…
Emerging Tech

Unexpected particle plumes discovered jetting out of asteroid Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx craft traveled to asteroid Bennu last year and won't return until 2023. But the mission is already throwing up unexpected findings, like plumes of particles which are being ejected from the surface of the asteroid.
Emerging Tech

Trip to Neptune’s moon, Triton, could inform search for extraterrestrial life

NASA has proposed sending a craft to Neptune to study its largest moon, Triton. Studying Triton could offer clues to how liquid water is maintained on planets, which may indicate what to look for when searching for life beyond our planet.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover passes its tests with flying colors

The Mars 2020 rover team has been undertaking a series of tests to see if the craft will be able to launch, navigate, and land on the Red Planet. Called Systems Test 1, or ST1, these tests represent the first test drive of the new rover.

Light up the night! Here are the five best headlamps money can buy

Headlamps make all the difference when camping or walking the dog at night, especially when you're in need of both hands. From Petzl to Tikkid, here are some of the best headlamps on the market.
Emerging Tech

A hive of activity: Using honeybees to measure urban pollution

According to a new study from Vancouver, bees could help us understand urban pollution. Scientists have found an innovative way to measure the level of source of pollution in urban environments: by analyzing honey.
Emerging Tech

Spacewalk a success as astronauts upgrade batteries on the ISS

The International Space Station was treated to some new batteries on Friday, thanks to two NASA astronauts who took a spacewalk for nearly seven hours in order to complete the upgrades.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robotic companions and computer-aided karaoke

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!