Eljen Technology in Sweetwater is beginning to make a real mark on the world of radiation detection with its advances in plastic scintillation material. The company, a subsidiary of Ludlum Measurements, was recently recognized as a collaborator on a project that was named one of the R&D 100 for 2012.
The R&D 100 Awards is a list of the top 100 research and development projects named annually by the R&D Magazine, a research and development publication that serves research scientists, engineers, and technical staff members at laboratories worldwide.
Eljen Technology manufactures plastic scintillation material that is used in radiation detection systems such as gate monitors, medical devices, and astrophysics exploration. Eljen’s director and general manager Chuck Hurlbut is an internationally recognized expert in the field of organic scintillation technology. After establishing a similar business in Ohio, he came to Sweetwater about 16 years ago to build this division. Due to his expertise, Mr. Hurlbut was approached by a team of scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) who invented a special plastic that could discriminate between two types of radiation, but LLNL needed a commercial partner to develop and market the product.
It is with Eljen’s help that LLNL was recognized among the R&D top 100.
While attending an international physics symposium in Knoxville, TN, Hurlbut was approached by leaders of the LLNL group, who showed him a dime-sized piece of this new plastic that could differentiate between neutron and gamma radiation. Eljen has long produced plastic scintillation material that can detect all types of nuclear radiations. However, it was not possible to specifically identify the presence of neutrons as distinguished from other radiation sources naturally occurring in the world environment. The need to identify neutrons is that they are almost exclusively emitted by the kinds of radioactive materials used in nuclear weaponry and nuclear reactors. Scintillators emit tiny pulses of light when exposed to radioactivity; in this new plastic the time signature of the pulses from neutrons differs from those of other common radiation types, and this discrimination process is known as pulse shape discrimination (PSD).
Hurlbut said this is a significant new development in the field since It will increase the ability for governments to detect the illicit transport of nuclear weapons materials. “Basically this can help us stop the bad guys from moving nuclear weapons around,” he said. Although the LLNL team of scientists discovered the right combination of chemicals to create this plastic, they could not produce it in a large enough form for practical purposes, so they turned to Hurlbut's knowledge and called on Eljen's expertise in manufacturing this difficult-to-produce product.
Mr. Hurlbut's team at Eljen began meeting with the LLNL team in March 2011. Within six months after their own chemical research and manufacturing engineering, they were able to produce this plastic in the size of a jelly jar, demonstrating thereby that it could be made into an effective size for radiation detection. “We sent our product to the team, and they were stunned,” Hurlbut said. That’s when the LLNL team went public, and the invention was eventually recognized by R&D Magazine as one of the top 100 research and development projects of the year. Eljen Technology was named as an official collaborator on the project.
Eljen can now make scintillators several times larger than the original "jelly jar," and with these larger sizes, their sensitivity to radiation is likewise increased. Additionally, they are working on new forms of this material, which can be used to construct devices for actual imaging of nuclear devices hidden in transportation conveyances, all in an effort to assist in opposing international terrorism. Mr. Hurlbut credits the hard work of his lab manager Loretta Hernandez, physicist Matt Jackson, and chemists Brook Morris and James Cleckler for making this recognition possible.
Hurlbut explained that plastic scintillators have been made and in use since World War II times, and the basic technology has remained much the same since then, which is why this latest development is significant in the radiation detection field.
Eljen is now officially licensed by LLNL to manufacture detection systems with this new scintillation material.