Sources: Douglas McGregor, 785-532-4093, mcgregor@k-state.edu;
and Philip Ugorowski, 785-532-2382, pugo@k-state.edu
Video available: http://www.youtube.com/user/KState#p/c/C476237DAF61390B/5/du72wqJAoqs
News release prepared by: Tyler Sharp, 785-532-2535, media@k-state.edu

Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011

SMART SCIENCE: NUCLEAR ENGINEERING LABORATORY DEVELOPING RADIATION DETECTORS FOR INDUSTRY, GOVERNMENT AGENCIES

MANHATTAN -- If another nuclear emergency occurs like that in March at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, a key Kansas State University research laboratory could play a key role with its newly enhanced capabilities for large-scale production of disposable radiation detectors. These detectors can be used to measure the amount of radiation released in the atmosphere.

K-State's Semiconductor Materials and Radiological Technologies Laboratory, or SMART Lab, is internationally known for the research and development of radiation detectors. Inexpensive, disposable radiation detectors are a specialty of the lab. Such detectors can wirelessly transmit their radiation readings while dropping through a radioactive cloud. Radiation detectors are also used in oil well logging and medical imaging.

The lab received a combined total $2.5 million grant in 2009 and 2010 from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a part of the U.S. Department of Defense, to build a new clean room at the lab, allowing for large-scale production of disposable detectors in preparation of future emergencies like that at Fukushima, according to Douglas McGregor, K-State professor of nuclear engineering and SMART Lab director. 

A clean room allows a controlled amount of contaminants, creating a clean environment for building specific devices such as neutron detectors on silicon wafers. Normal air contains about a million and a half particles that are larger than one micron per every cubic foot. A micron is around one-one hundredth the diameter of a human hair. The new clean room at K-State, now under construction and to be completed later this fall, will be a class 100 clean room, meaning it has less than 100 such particles per every cubic foot.

To maintain the clean air, it is continuously filtered. Temperatures are also maintained at a constant level to prevent adverse reactions and for process repeatability.

"Our mission is not to just do research with the new detectors we are developing, but to pass the technology on to industry," McGregor said. "We have equipment that would be similar to what they would use in an industrial laboratory."

Development of radiation detectors is a multifaceted process. A crystalline solid is usually necessary to build the detectors. Two distinct types of solids are used: scintillators and semiconductors. Scintillators give off light when they react with radiation. Current research in the laboratory includes developing brighter scintillators. Only novel semiconductors are grown in the laboratory based on economic considerations. When radiation interacts with a semiconductor, an electrical current is produced.

"We have the capability of tailoring the type of detector we make to the needs the customers may have," McGregor said.

McGregor founded the SMART Lab at the University of Michigan in 1997. He accepted a faculty position at K-State in 2001 and moved the laboratory to the basement of Ward Hall. The 6,000-square-foot laboratory has a multitude of functions, ranging from crystal growth to packaging with radio electronics.

"There is no university laboratory in the United States that is vertically integrated like we are," McGregor said. "We have capabilities that rival those of national laboratories."

Those capabilities are the result of considerable growth in the laboratory. Small grants helped to form the foundation of the laboratory, as did students. Except for select instances, students initially completed laboratory construction. Equipment often was used or salvaged. The hard work and persistence paid dividends for students and faculty, enhancing the lab's reputation for high-quality results. The National Science Foundation also awarded McGregor a grant for nearly $2 million in 2003.

"That really accelerated our program," McGregor said. "Different agencies saw what we were capable of doing, and we have been supported at a good level ever since. That culminated in the Defense Threat Reduction Agency grant for the new clean room."

Along with growth in laboratory space and capabilities, student employment has also increased at the lab. About 25 undergraduate and graduate students are currently employed, a contrast to the laboratory's small initial staff. Research forms only one component of the student experience with the SMART laboratory, McGregor said.

"I trust the students, so we try to train them for success," he said. "It's not just a matter of showing them how to work a few pieces of equipment in a laboratory."

Future growth for the laboratory involves a proposed center to the National Science Foundation. McGregor has collaborated with colleagues from Fisk University in Tennessee, Washington State University and the University of Michigan. The National Science Foundation would subsidize the center along with support from each laboratory's own programs. Researchers from across the country would be able to conduct research at any of the four facilities.

"We will have centers that are geographically convenient for people across the United States," McGregor said. "That is our plan."