Shape of things to comePurdue researchers turn cell phones into radiation detectors

Published 24 January 2008

Boilermaker scientists equip cell phones with radiation sensors able to detect even light residues of radioactive material; many cell phones already contain global positioning locators, so the detector-equipped network of phones would serve as a national radiation tracking system

People power. Last May, in an NDIA conference in Washington, D.C., Jay Cohen, head of DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate (his title is undersecretary for science and technology) said that he envisions a day when cell phones would be equipped with tiny sensors which would detect the presence of chemical, biological, and nuclear material. If such materials were detected, the phone would automatically alert local law enforcement — and since these phones would GPS-equipped, the emergency authorities would know exactly where the dangerous materials were detected.

Cohen’s audacious vision is nearer reality than you think, at least the nuclear detection part of it. Researchers at Purdue University are working with the state of Indiana to develop a system which would use a network of cell phones to detect and track radiation to help prevent terrorist attacks with radiological dirty bombs and nuclear weapons. Such a system could blanket the nation with millions of cell phones equipped with radiation sensors able to detect even light residues of radioactive material. Because cell phones already contain global positioning locators, the network of phones would serve as a tracking system, said physics professor Ephraim Fischbach. Fischbach is working with Jere Jenkins, director of Purdue’s radiation laboratories in the School of Nuclear Engineering. “It’s the ubiquitous nature of cell phones and other portable electronic devices that give this system its power,” Fischbach said. “It’s meant to be small, cheap and eventually built into laptops, personal digital assistants and cell phones.”

The system was developed by Andrew Longman, a consulting instrumentation scientist. Longman developed the software for the system and then worked with Purdue researchers to integrate the software with radiation detectors and cell phones. Cellular data air time was provided by AT&T. The research has been funded by the Indiana Department of Transportation through the Joint Transportation Research Program and School of Civil Engineering at Purdue. “The likely targets of a potential terrorist attack would be big cities with concentrated populations, and a system like this would make it very difficult for someone to go undetected with a radiological dirty bomb in such an area,” said Longman, who also is Purdue alumnus. “The more people are walking around with cell phones and PDAs, the easier it would be to detect and catch the perpetrator. We are asking the public to push for this.”

Tiny solid-state radiation sensors are commercially available. The detection system