Gamma rays help CSIRO track down drugs, bombs

Drug smugglers and terrorists beware: CSIRO has struck an agreement to commercialise scanning technology that uses radiation to x-ray freight in the hunt for narcotics and explosives.

Drug smugglers and terrorists beware: CSIRO has struck an agreement to commercialise scanning technology that uses radiation to x-ray freight in the hunt for narcotics and explosives.

A scan of a unit loading device containing mixed cargo. From left: computer equipment, machinery, foodstuffs and office items. Credit: CSIRO

In the agreement, announced yesterday, Chinese security inspection technology research company Nuctech will join forces with the Australian research organisation to manufacture the first commercial scanner including both CSIRO's neutron technology and Nuctech's x-ray knowhow.

"After an extensive evaluation of a range of commercial partners Nuctech were selected based upon their world-leading position in x-ray technology and their experience relevant to the CSIRO technology," a CSIRO spokesperson said.

X-ray scanners are useful for detecting objects based on their density and shape but do not reveal the composition of those objects, CSIRO said: a problem solved the neutron scanner developed by the CSIRO. The scanner is designed to accurately detect items concealed in air freight containers, including metal objects such as weapons as well as organic articles such as narcotics and explosives, CSIRO chief executive Dr Garrett said.

The neutron scanner works by comparing the reduction in energy of gamma rays and neutron beams as they pass through objects, according to CSIRO. Because different materials block the gamma rays and neutron beams differently, the scanner can generate a composite image showing objects' shape, density and composition, according to a CSIRO news bulletin.

By combining x-ray and neutron scanning technologies, researchers can create material-specific images of the contents of air cargo containers so operators can detect anomalies to be inspected more closely.

Composition information appears as different colours ranging from blue (metals) to red (organic materials) Credit: CSIRO

Scanning an entire air freight container should take less than one minute, according to CSIRO.

However, there may need to be some improvements in the scanner before it significantly exceeds the performance of current detection technology. A nine-month long trial of the CSIRO's technology was conducted by Customs at Brisbane airport between 2006 and 2007, using AU$8.4 million of government funds.

According to the Custom's 2007 annual report, the trial showed the neutron scanner "had a comparable detection capability to that of existing technologies deployed by Customs".

"Customs and CSIRO agreed that the trial should cease and that the scanner and associated infrastructure be decommissioned," the report continues.

"CSIRO believe there are a range of improvements that could be incorporated into a next generation scanner. CSIRO may pursue future development of a next generation scanner with improved performance in conjunction with a commercial partner," the report concludes.

The CSIRO spokesperson said the results achieved by the product in the trial were good: "CSIRO was very satisfied with the outcome of the trial. Our first prototype performed as well as the leading technology on the market -- in product development terms, this is a fantastic result. The conclusion of the trial was that, with improvements in image clarity and other planned enhancements, the CSIRO Air Cargo Scanner has the potential to significantly outperform the current best commercial scanners."

According to a CSIRO spokesperson, the first commercial prototype will be trialled in Beijing later this year.