Graduate student Jon Mueller has received the Inaugural Best Student Presentation Award for his presentation at the annual Domestic Nuclear Detection (DNDO) Academic Research Initiative (ARI) Grantees Conference. April’s meeting of the DNDO was the first year that graduate students were able to deliver oral presentations on their research. The DNDO is a part of the United States Department of Homeland Security and it funds many types of research around the country, including projects at Duke’s HIGS facility (high intensity gamma-ray source).
Mueller has been working closely with his co-advisors Duke professors Mohammad Ahmed and Henry Weller on the DNDO-funded project. Their project, housed at HIGS, is looking for new methods to identify nuclear materials that may come in or leave the country. The ultimate goal behind the research is to secure the country’s borders against potential nuclear threats. “People have been using beams of light to detect nuclear materials for years,” Mueller says. “What they haven’t done is use special beams of light [called] polarized beams to detect these materials.” Duke’s HIGS facility houses one of the most intense polarized beams in the world, so it is well situated to conduct this type of research. Much of the work being done in this field focuses on methods to distinguish special nuclear materials (SNMs) from normal materials. Uranium is a good example of an element that requires such testing. Enriched uranium can be used in manufacturing weapons, while depleted uranium can be used to create body armor or other benign products. One of the primary questions behind Mueller’s research is whether scientists can use a beam to distinguish between the two. Mueller’s experiment found ways to address this very question. It ran for a week at the HIGS facility and during that time Mueller used the beam with different materials, or targets. This amount of time needed for an experiment is relatively short and Mueller attributes that to the intensity of the beam at HIGS. “Other facilities can do this same research, but their beams aren’t as intense or polarized so the experiment would take longer,” says Mueller. “Physicists have been writing about the possibilities of using polarized beams to analyze target materials since the 80’s. But the experimental facilities were not available before HIGS.” Mueller visited HIGS as an undergraduate while working with his advisor at Washington University. The robust research and exceptional faculty at both HIGS and TUNL are the primary reasons that Mueller chose to attend Duke for his graduate work. As a rising third-year graduate student Mueller is now moving towards his thesis work, which will extend the research presented at the DNDO conference to other SNMs.