Washington, January 23 : It may soon be possible to utilise cellular phones as radars to thwart nuclear terrorism.
Purdue University researchers in Indiana are developing a system to create an array of millions of cell phones, and install radiation sensors in them so that they may help detect and prevent terrorist attacks with radiological "dirty bombs" and nuclear weapons.
The project, being funded by the Indiana Department of Transportation, aims at installing radiation sensors in millions of mobile phones to facilitate the detection of even light residues of radioactive material.
It is believed that the network of cell phones may serve as a tracking system, given that the handsets these days already come equipped with global positioning locators.
"It's the ubiquitous nature of cell phones and other portable electronic devices that give this system its power. It's meant to be small, cheap and eventually built into laptops, personal digital assistants and cell phones," said physics professor Ephraim Fischbach, who is working with Jere Jenkins, director of Purdue's radiation laboratories within the School of Nuclear Engineering.
A Purdue alumnus and consulting instrumentation scientist named Andrew Longman is the man behind the new system. He has written software that integrates radiation detectors and cell phones.
Initial tests conducted last November have already proved the system to be capable of detecting a weak radiation source 15 feet from the sensors.
"The collective action of the sensors, combined with the software analysis, detects the source. The system would transmit signals to a data centre, and the data centre would transmit information to authorities without alerting the person carrying the phone," Fischbach said.
The system may be trained to ignore known radiation sources, such as hospitals, and radiation from certain common items like bananas, which contain a radioactive isotope of potassium.
"The radiological dirty bomb or a suitcase nuclear weapon is going to give off higher levels of radiation than those background sources," Fischbach said.
"The system would be sensitive enough to detect these tiny levels of radiation, but it would be smart enough to discern which sources posed potential threats and which are harmless," the researcher added.