The University of Southampton

Remote radiation detection and 3D medical imaging innovations draw upon astronomy expertise at the University of Southampton

Published: 2 February 2018
Current techniques for inspecting radiation sources rely upon devices like the handheld Radioisotope Identification Device from Symetrica

Gamma-ray imaging techniques first used in space telescopes are being applied in modern security and health systems in a joint project between the University of Southampton and industrial partner Symetrica.

The two-year partnership aims to transfer and embed coded aperture imaging systems for new gamma-camera systems that will ultimately have advanced 3D imaging capability. The technology, which overcomes the difficulties of focusing high energy radiation, will lead to applications including the remote inspection of transportation and cargo for radioactive materials as well as new scanning systems in the field of Nuclear Medicine.

The imaging techniques being explored are based on coded apertures, or coded masks, that have been largely developed for gamma-ray astronomy and deployed on working space telescopes. These overcome the issues with lenses and mirrors that become transparent to more energetic X-rays and gamma-rays by using dense materials like lead or tungsten to cast a complex shadow of the sources onto a detector plane.

The project aims to develop a new coded aperture imaging system which could inspire a new generation of ‘stand-off’ imaging systems. These systems would allow for remote inspection for radioactive materials, meaning operators wouldn’t have to get close to the subject. The imagers have a wide field that allows larger areas to be scanned at once, with the imaging system allowing any radioactivity detected to be associated with specific objects or areas. Symetrica’s world-leading isotope identification capabilities will be used to precisely identify the source material.

For the purposes of medical imaging, scientists hope the emerging technology can combine coded masks with new detectors to produce a 3D imaging capability. The new technology will not require heavy equipment and will be far less intrusive than current scanning methods where patients have to be taken to the camera. Medical scans using the new technology should be faster and involve lower risks to the patient.

Professor Tony Bird, the academic lead on the project, says, “It is exciting to see astronomy techniques being translated into new practical applications and I hope this partnership will lead to strong long-term collaboration with our high-tech local industry. We might see this technology in use in ports and airports across the world in the near future. A lot of the early studies into these techniques were pioneered by the University of Southampton so it is fitting that our scientists are continuing to lead advances in this field.”

Through the current collaboration, known as a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), postdoctoral researcher Callum Shand from Southampton’s Department of Physics and Astronomy has been seconded to the industrial partner to drive development of the imaging innovation.

The University-industry collaboration is being joint-funded by Symetrica and Innovate UK, a Government body driving productivity and growth through innovation in business. Symetrica, originally a spinout from Southampton’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, is a global leader in radiation, detection and identification.

Dr Matthew Dallimore, CTO at Symetrica says, “The KTP is an excellent opportunity to reinforce the links between ourselves and the excellent faculty members at the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Symetrica’s strategy is to push the boundaries of detection and identification of radioactive threats for Homeland Security applications. It is imperative that we remain at the cutting edge in our field; this KTP provides Symetrica with the opportunity to do just that, as well as move into the Nuclear Medicine market.”

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