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Mizzou Engineering student wins nuclear association award

Andrew Benwell, an electrical and computer engineering doctoral student, has garnered international attention for his paper on an engine he is developing to power a small and inexpensive nuclear materials detector.

A Mizzou Engineering graduate student is receiving international recognition for his work to develop an engine for a portable nuclear materials detector far smaller and less costly than existing devices.

Andrew Benwell, an electrical and computer engineering doctoral student, won the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management’s (INMM) J. D. Williams Student Paper Award on July 17. Judges working in the nuclear materials management professions selected Benwell’s paper from 17 submitted by U.S. and international students, an INMM spokeswoman said.

“I wouldn’t have been able to apply my research to such a timely problem at a lot of universities,” Benwell said. “I’m really glad Mizzou is being recognized for the research opportunities it provides.”

Benwell’s paper details engineering theory behind a component of a compact nuclear detection device that aims to fill gaps in America’s nuclear detection effort caused by the large number and variety of entry points into the United States.

Working with Assistant Professor Scott Kovaleski, Benwell devised the device to employ “active interrogation” screenings that would stimulate a detectable reaction in nuclear materials rather than try to pick up on the low levels of radioactivity those materials naturally emit.

“We stimulate nuclear materials to reveal themselves by inducing a reaction with a particle we generate, in our case neutrons,” Kovaleski said. “Think of this as a game of Marco Polo. We yell, “Marco,” by generating neutrons, and the nuclear material must yell, “Polo”—by radioactively decaying—if it encounters a neutron.”

What makes Benwell and Kovaleski’s device unusual is its reliance on a piezoelectric transformer, which creates the high voltage required to make neutrons in such a compact package. The device’s transformer would amplify the voltage supplied by a small battery or another electrical source to create those neutrons, then use the neutrons to probe suspected targets for identifying nuclear characteristics, Benwell said.

The clear reaction generated by the neutrons makes it more likely that nuclear materials—even some that may be shielded—will be detected, Benwell said.

Moreover, Benwell said his nuclear detection device is considerably more portable and cost-effective than existing devices.

“We think we can fit the whole thing into a case the size of an iPod or less with this piezoelectric material,” Benwell said. “And our materials would reduce costs a great deal.”

Kovaleski said he hopes to have a working prototype of the device within a year and to pursue the development of an entire system along the same lines.