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Air Cargo Scanner -

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Air cargo scanner

Graham Phillips catches up with the Australian team that developed the world's first scanner
capable of detecting explosives in air cargo containers.

NARRATION

September 11 had a profound effect on our lives in many ways.

Dr Graham Phillips

One of the legacies of those horrific events is of course airport security.

NARRATION

We are now subjected to more scans and checks than ever before. But what about air cargo? Eighty
percent of air freight travels on passenger planes, with us. Does it get subjected to the same
level of security?

Dr Nick Cutmore

The scanning of air cargo is a pressing problem that's been around for a very long time. A lot of
sea cargo does get scanned around the world. In terms of air cargo, not a lot.

NARRATION

Since 9/11, scientists at CSIRO have been developing an air freight scanner to address this
security gap.

Dr Graham Phillips

So this is the first system you put together?

Dr Nick Cutmore

Yep no this is the first scanner that we built. What's special about this scanner is that it
combines neutrons and x-rays together to give you a much clearer picture of the, what's inside the
cargo containers.

Dr Graham Phillips

So traditional ones only use x-rays is that right?

Dr James Tickner

Yes normal systems will be based around x-ray alone.

Dr Graham Phillips

Oh okay. So how do you generate the neutrons? Where does that happen?

Dr James Tickner

They're made using a system called a neutron generator. That's actually buried deep inside this
concrete block which just shields the radiation from getting out. This uses a fusion reaction. It's
very similar to the reaction that goes on in the heart of the sun.

Dr Graham Phillips

So x-rays out of one, neutrons out of the other?

Dr James Tickner

Yep that's correct. So the, the skinnier slot's where the x-rays come out, the wider slot there is
the neutrons.

Dr Graham Phillips

So it's just sort of shooting out beams of these?

Dr James Tickner

Yep. So we get one line as it were one, one row in an image and then as we move the cargo through
the beam, row by row we build up a picture of what's inside the container.

NARRATION

The neutrons are sensed by a bank of detectors within the scanner.

Dr Graham Phillips

These are components of the detector?

Dr James Tickner

Yep that's correct. So we start off with a piece of this. This is the scintillator material. So we
fire a neutron in here and the neutron gets turned into a little flash of light that we can then
pick up with our electronics. Here we have a bank of sixteen and then we have the electronics that
converts the light into an electrical pulse, we have a digital chip to count those pulses and then
that connects through to a computer. It's quite similar to a, a digital camera. We have these
scintillators making the light, we have a whole array of pixels and that's what we use to build up
the image.

Dr Graham Phillips

So if we just had x-rays, that's what the image would look like?

Dr James Tickner

Yep. It shows the shapes of the objects in the cargo quite clearly but you have no idea what
they're actually made from. But if we bring in the neutron information then we get a full colour
image.

Dr Graham Phillips

Oh look at that yeah.

Dr James Tickner

Now the way it works is the neutrons and the x-rays together lets us pick out different classes of
material, different types of material in the cargo and then we use different colours to show those
materials to the operator.

NARRATION

With the neutrons, the scanner can distinguish up to two hundred and fifty different types of
substances.

Dr James Tickner

So for example we've got some computer equipment here on the left showing up sort of green from the
glass in, in the old fashioned computer monitor there, we've got metal parts, steel parts showing
up in blue and then we've got some food stuff showing in red and we've got paper and files showing
up in orange.

Dr Graham Phillips

So you could pick the difference between say a bag of explosives and a bag of flour?

Dr James Tickner

Yep no they'd show up quite clearly as being different colours.

NARRATION

Ironically, it's using nuclear technology to make the world a safer place.

Dr Nick Cutmore

Neutrons bring a new dimension into the, the areas that we've formed, we're able to better identify
objects that are not meant to be in the cargo, various contraband items.

NARRATION

Two of the scanners are in operation at Abu Dhabi and Belgrade airports, and the team is about to
roll out their latest version, the Mark 3.

Dr Nick Cutmore

It's made in China by our partner, Nutech. The technology really is fundamentally the same. The
things that have changed are in the shielding. We're using recycled rubber rather than concrete,
we're using smaller neutron generators and we're now using a whole system that we put in place a
lot quicker and is easier to maintain.

Dr Graham Phillips

So we now have a device that will help close the gap in air security. Let's hope it comes to an
airport near you and me soon.