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Cryo3 could spot 'dirty bombs'

Able to distinguish different types of radiation

Portable radiation detector could sniff out "dirty bombs" at airports, border crossings and other sensitive locations.  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- A newly developed portable radiation detector could help security agents at airports, border crossings and ports prevent terrorists from smuggling dangerous nuclear materials and bombs into the United States.

The detector received added attention Monday after government officials announced that a U.S. citizen with connections to al Qaeda planned to build and explode a "dirty bomb" that would spread radioactive material, probably in the Washington, D.C., area.

The handheld device is more sensitive than other radiation detectors such as Geiger counters, according to scientists, which could make it more effective in sniffing out suspicious sources of radioactivity.

"You ... would be able to distinguish natural from artificial radiation," Mike Clark, spokesman for the National Radiation Protection Board in Great Britain, told New Scientist Magazine.

The instrument would even be able to detect a dirty bomb, a conventional explosive device laced with radioactive material, he said.

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Known as Cryo3, the contraption contains crystals of germanium, a rare and expensive element that is mainly a byproduct of zinc ore processing. The germanium crystals must to be cooled to temperatures lower than minus 300 degrees F.

Bulkier predecessors were cooled by liquid nitrogen and confined to the laboratory. But technological and design advances allowed researchers to shrink the detector to only 10 pounds.

"Cryo3 offers extremely high-resolution radiation analysis in a portable package," said Lorenzo Fabris, an engineer at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, California, in a recent statement.

Fabris and other Berkeley scientists developed the device with colleagues at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California.

Both labs conduct national security research for the U.S. Department of Energy.

For homeland security applications, Cryo3 could be used to search for various kinds of radiation at specific locations, possibly narrowing down a suspected source to an individual person, according to the lab scientists.


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