For decades, Finnish physicists have been building the most advanced radiation detectors for extreme conditions: the world’s largest particle accelerators at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where particles that travel almost at the speed of light are made to collide in order to find answers to the fundamental questions of the universe.
Radiation emitted by radioactive substances is also increasingly used in more everyday contexts, such as medicine, research laboratories and nuclear power plants. To be able to protect people from it, radiation, which is invisible, must be accurately identified and measured. However, accurate measuring devices have traditionally been large and expensive.
And yet, state-of-the-art technical solutions could also be utilised in such less extraordinary radiation detectors. Physicists thought it would be possible to design a radiation detector that is smaller than the current ones, but that is still accurate and reliable, using semiconductors developed for top-level research. The end products would be able to accurately measure various sources of radioactive radiation, while still being light and easy to use.
Everything started at the coffee table of the Detector Laboratory in Kumpula. The scientists were aware that the University encourages people to promulgate the results of their research in society by various means. A discussion on a coffee break in the spring of 2020 revolved around a new campaign launched by Helsinki Innovation Services Ltd (HIS), which promised anyone submitting an invention disclosure a chance to win a bottle of champagne.
In addition to receiving a bottle of fizz for their efforts, the researchers gained more ideas and, ultimately, half a million euros in funding awarded by Business Finland for the technical development and commercialisation of the application based on the invention. The idea was debated in particular within HIS and other networks.
For years, Finnish physicists and engineers have been developing a range of demanding coatings and production methods for basic research that respond to a range of radiation sources while also withstanding the radiation.
“The functioning of all detectors is based on the detector material reacting to radiation,” says Chief Engineer Eija Tuominen, the principal investigator of the project.
The physicists have manufactured semiconductor detectors in the Micronova cleanroom at Otaniemi, Espoo, for which Aalto University and the University of Helsinki have concluded a collaboration agreement. The University of Helsinki houses excellent laboratories for measuring the features of detectors, while the Lappeenranta–Lahti University of Technology (LUT) specialises in electronics.
Semiconductor technology engineers and particle physicists were already well networked as the the Helsinki Institute of Physics (HIP) connects them domestically and internationally. HIP is a research institute jointly operated by the University of Helsinki, Aalto University, the University of Jyväskylä, the Lappeenranta–Lahti University of Technology (previously Lappeenranta University of Technology) and Tampere University (previously Tampere University of Technology) that manages Finland’s connections to CERN. Additionally, HIP has numerous joint activities with large research institutions and facilities in North America and Asia.
Along the way, the DeNuSa project began to take shape. Since radiation comes in many forms, the goal is to combine several small detectors in the product under development. A specific detector can be particularly good at detecting, for example, X-rays, while another specialises in particle radiation. The aim is to develop a technically functional prototype and ensure a route to commercialisation in 18 months.
Ideas abound for using a lightweight and easy-to-use as well as effective radiation detector for monitoring and improving nuclear safety. Such a device could even be remotely controlled with a drone under demanding conditions. It could be used to pinpoint radiation sources both at nuclear power plant demolition sites and from among recycled metal. The application could also be utilised to enhance the safety of medical radiation therapies.
Radiation poses a significant risk to health and the environment. Its quantity must be measured when utilised in, for example, medicine, research laboratories or nuclear power plants. In currently available detectors, higher accuracy correlates with a higher price and bigger size.
For decades, Finns have developed various radiation detectors for physics experiments aimed at solving the fundamental questions of the universe. The same technical solutions can be used to improve more common radiation detectors.
For the next 18 months, the project will focus on developing a technical prototype of a detector that measures a wide range of radiation. At the same time, a model for commercialising the product will be developed.
The project is looking for funders, potential customers to help collect user experiences of measuring devices, as well as partners capable of manufacturing parts for the product.