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Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

New grants to help researchers improve nuclear detection, domestic security

– A pair of federal grants will help researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, improve domestic security by developing better methods of detecting nuclear material.

The two grants, awarded earlier this month, amount to nearly $2 million this year with a potential total of $9 million over five years. The funds come from the Academic Research Initiative, a partnership between the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. The initiative seeks to build the nation's intellectual capital in nuclear sciences.

Edward Morse, professor of nuclear engineering, is the principal investigator of the largest grant, getting $1.4 million this first year with a potential $7 million over five years. It was one of only two large grants awarded through the Academic Research Initiative.

Morse heads a multi-disciplinary team, named Domestic Nuclear Threat Security (DONUTS), consisting of Eric Norman, professor-in-residence of nuclear engineering; Brian Wirth, associate professor of nuclear engineering; James Siegrist, professor of physics; and Dorit Hochbaum, professor of industrial engineering and operations research with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

The group will search for advanced materials that can replace germanium, an element currently used in the most accurate radiation detectors. The challenge with germanium is that it must be cooled to 78 Kelvin, or 319 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, for use in detectors. Finding other materials that can be used at room temperature would make detectors more practical.

Morse's group will also develop strategies using data mining and image analysis to identify patterns within the volumes of signals received from detectors that may indicate potential threats, find ways to streamline data from multiple detectors, and fill in gaps in the database on nuclear materials.

Kai Vetter, associate professor-in-residence of nuclear engineering and a staff physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is the principal investigator of the second Academic Research Initiative grant awarded to UC Berkeley. The first installment is $500,000 for this year, with a potential total of $2 million over four years.

One of eight medium-sized grants awarded in the country, the award will fund research on gamma-ray imaging technology.

"This research is not only extremely useful for homeland security, but also for biomedical imaging," said Vetter. "Whether you are searching for a small tumor or illicit nuclear material, the problem is very similar. You are searching for a potentially weak signal in the midst of a complex and varying background. While in biomedical imaging the background comes from the uptake of radioisotopes in normal tissue, in homeland security the background comes from both natural and man-made sources, including buildings, bridges and even trees, as well as from people, particularly if they have undergone radiation treatments for medical problems."

Vetter joins co-principal investigator Bruce Hasegawa, professor of radiology at UC San Francisco, for this project.

"These grants and others recently awarded to our department reflect a resurgence in the nuclear engineering field, particularly in research on nuclear non-proliferation and in energy production," said Jasmina Vujic, chair of nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley. "There has been in this country a lack of long-term planning in terms of nuclear energy and national security policy for the past 30 years. We're now seeing that change."