Patent for a portable device that monitors both gamma and neutron radiation

A team at the Institute of corpuscular physics (IFIC, by its Spanish acronym) has patented a compact, portable device that simultaneously monitors gamma and neutron radiation produced in radioactive processes and nuclear reactions. It can lead to multiple applications: from detecting radioactive materials to relieve the side effects of hadrontherapy, a novel cancer therapy.

Photograph from the gamma and neutron radiation camera in use by an operator. The images on the right show the result obtained for eight gamma radiation sources (top) and three thermal neutron sources (bottom). The development of this detector stems from a Consolidator Grant research project awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) to CSIC scientist César Domingo Pardo, who works at IFIC, a joint centre of the CSIC and the University of Valencia.

Current commercially available devices for nuclear radiation detection have limitations with respect to the combined detection of gamma and neutron radiation, so it is common to find devices optimised for only one type of these.

Moreover, devices designed for joint detection do not have energy thresholds suitable for detecting low energies, nor do they offer high spatial resolution imaging. In addition, these devices are often bulky and heavy, making them difficult to carry.

This new development overcomes these difficulties by integrating in a compact and handy device the ability to detect both radiations over a wide energy spectrum, and by providing images in high spatial resolution, which gives precise information on the location and properties of the emitting elements. The team is currently looking for companies interested in licensing the patent for the development and commercialisation of the device.

From the heart of the stars to nuclear safety

The HYMNS project aims to replicate in the laboratory the nuclear reactions that occur inside stars, and thus study the formation of elements heavier than iron in the Universe. These processes produce photons, the particles that make up light, in the form of gamma radiation, as well as neutrons, one of the atom nucleus’ components alongside protons.

"To reduce this neutron radiation and better study the nuclear processes occurring inside stars, we have developed a series of advanced measurement techniques and instruments capable of minimising this neutron background," explains César Domingo, who leads the experiment. "We soon realised that these techniques could have applications in the field of nuclear safety, port surveillance and even in medical cancer therapies such as hadrontherapy," he continues.

The device consists of a special collimator (a system that homogenises the beams into a uniform stream) enriched with a lithium isotope that allows neutrons to be absorbed and prevents background radiation produced inside the collimator itself.

"By using this collimator in the foreground, a pinhole camera is formed that allows capturing an image of the neutron radiation with high precision and detection efficiency, while simultaneously applying gamma-imaging techniques," describes the researcher.

On the other hand, gamma radiation is displayed using electronic collimation with two detection planes: in the first one, the gamma ray is scattered, and in the second one it is completely absorbed. "By joining the energetic and spatial information from both planes, we are able to find out where this gamma radiation comes from," reveals Jorge Lerendegui, a CSIC researcher participating in this project.


Nuclear safety is one the main applications for this device. "The detector would make it possible to identify sources of nuclear radiation where there may be hidden uranium or plutonium, which emit these two types of radiation," claims Lerendegui. In addition to detecting gamma and neutron radiation at the same time, the device developed at IFIC is compact and lightweight, "making it different from previous bulkier devices, which means greater portability and increases the range of applications of this new system," points out César Domingo.

Researchers see hadronic therapy as another possible application for the device. This type of therapy uses protons to treat certain types of very localised tumours. The advantage over conventional radiotherapy, which uses photons, is that hadrontherapy mainly affects the tumour, minimising damage to the surrounding healthy tissue.

Gamma rays are produced as the protons travel towards the tumour, "which can be analysed with this device to know their trajectory with high precision and also check whether they mainly really reach the tumour”, explains Jorge Lerendegui. "On the other hand, neutrons are also produced, which represent the main source of secondary dose in this type of therapy. Therefore, monitoring both types of radiation would represent significant progress in this field," concludes the CSIC researcher.

Patent video:

Marc Escamilla
Deputy Vice-Presidency for
Knowledge Transfer - CSIC
Telephone: (+34) 96 161 29 95
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