At a recent event held on an overcast day in July 2022 at the University Park West Campus intramural fields, the Interaction of Ionizing Radiation with Matter University Research Alliance (IIRM-URA) showcased an innovative drone technology designed to detect gamma radiation. The event, which attracted a diverse group of attendees, featured presentations, a student poster competition, tours of the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor and the Millennium Science Complex, and a live drone demonstration.
Led by Penn State and funded by the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the IIRM-URA focuses on researching the interaction between radiation and materials, with a goal of improving survivability and response in the case of a nuclear attack. The alliance is a collaborative effort of 15 universities, four national laboratories, and two industrial companies.
Douglas Wolfe, professor and head of the Metals, Ceramics and Coatings Processing Department at Penn State, explained that the IIRM-URA’s research is centered around three areas: materials, devices and integration, and survivability and response. Researchers work on developing new materials for devices capable of withstanding a nuclear attack, engineering solutions for constructing integrated devices, and studying how radiation affects devices to enable the development of electronics and radiation detection systems that can survive radioactive threats.
The IIRM-URA also plays a significant role in workforce development and nurturing the next generation of researchers through various initiatives and student pipeline programs. One such program is the Student Opportunities in Applied Research (SOAR) Program, a summer internship and mentoring initiative designed to support highly qualified undergraduate students in STEM fields as they develop technical skills, communication skills, and career readiness. The program also serves as a pipeline to bring new talent into the Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) at Penn State.
Other outreach activities organized by the IIRM-URA include the Young Investigator Award Program, the UK Summer School for Radiation Detection and Measurement, Nuclear Science and Engineering Research Center (NSERC) internships, the Sea, Air, and Land (SeAL) Challenge, and various student-focused challenges such as the IIRM Virtual Drone Competitions.
The SeAL Challenge, launching in April and May of 2023, will feature teams of middle and high school students from nine regions working together to develop robotic devices capable of navigating various environments. The students will have 12-16 weeks to design and build submersible, airborne, or ground drones to navigate underwater, air, or land challenge courses, respectively. DTRA is the lead sponsor of this event.
Wolfe emphasized the importance of these workforce development activities in ensuring a solid workforce to defend the nation from nuclear threats for generations to come. He added, “Through the student pipeline development effort, we strive to foster the development of our nation’s next-generation workforce, which will recognize and address potential emerging threats and associated risks. The successful transformative research conducted within the IIRM-URA will assist DTRA in continuing to enable safe and reliable nuclear deterrents, counter nuclear proliferation, and provide innovative solutions and strategies to combat and protect against WMD threats.”
In the coming year, the IIRM-URA plans to hold three student drone competitions. The first competition, scheduled for March 31 to April 5, will challenge participants to fly a drone in a simulation to identify radiation sources in an abandoned building complex. The 2023 IIRM-URA Annual Review, to be held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will feature another drone demonstration. Furthermore, a virtual drone competition is planned for fall 2023, in which participants will fly a drone in a simulation to identify a safe path for first responders through a nuclear disaster scene.
In addition to Penn State, other members of the IIRM-URA include the Air Force Institute of Technology, Brigham Young University, Fisk University, Georgia Institute of Technology, H3D Inc., Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Naval Research Laboratory, Northwestern University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Radiation Monitoring Devices Inc., Sandia National Laboratory, United States Military Academy at West Point, University of California at Berkeley, University of Florida, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Surrey, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Vanderbilt University.
This collaborative research initiative aims to accelerate the understanding of ionizing radiation and its interaction with matter, promoting interdisciplinary research and advancing fundamental knowledge. As Wolfe highlighted, “Alliances like the IIRM-URA are able to accelerate our understanding in a unified and collaborative research initiative with the general goal of advancing fundamental knowledge and promoting interdisciplinary research.”
These institutions’ combined efforts contribute to the development of low-cost, high-efficiency detectors capable of operating on-site at room temperature, such as the drone demonstrated at last year’s event. Additionally, the electronics and systems developed through this research can withstand radiation damage, making them useful not only for defense applications but also for other sectors like banking and satellite systems.
As the IIRM-URA continues to drive innovation in radiation detection and response technology, its efforts contribute to both national security and the development of a skilled workforce capable of tackling the challenges posed by nuclear threats.