GE gets funding to make radiation detector prototype

General Electric Co. scientists are delving deeper into the nuclear weapon detection field as they c

General Electric Co. scientists are delving deeper into the nuclear weapon detection field as they continue to tweak medical imaging technology they helped pioneer.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has given GE Global Research a green light to start developing a prototype mobile radiation detector. The device will be based on the GE Healthcare’s nuclear medicine imaging technology.

The Niskayuna research and development operation announced Monday it has secured funding to embark on the second phase of a $7 million multiphased program that started in October 2007.

GE scientists will develop a working prototype that can — from a moving vehicle — identify and pinpoint radioactive sources from long distances. The sprawling Niskayuna campus employs 1,900.

GE’s Standoff Radiation Imaging System would allow law enforcement officers and first responders to search for nuclear threats at bridges, tunnels and high traffic areas. Doctors use similar imaging technology to detect cancers.

“We’re leveraging our expertise in health care imaging,” said GE Global Research spokesman Todd Alhart.

GE Healthcare’s nuclear medicine imaging technology works by converting into light the radiation emitted by radioisotopes given to cancer patients. The isotopes are attached to molecules that cancer cells consume, creating a concentrated radioactive spot.

“We’re taking that technology and changing the scale and adding a lot of other features,” said Scott Zelakiewicz, GE Global Research’s principal investigator in the mobile radiation detector project.

The funding promises to broaden GE research and development work in the nuclear detection field. In April 2007, GE Global Research announced Homeland Security had awarded it $2.5 million in initial funding for a digital X-ray radiation detector. That device will be used on steel cargo containers and automobiles at U.S. ports and border crossings.

The X-ray portal, which will likely be used by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, is being adapted from the medical digital X-ray technology GE scientists invented in Niskayuna. In 1997, GE debuted the digital X-ray technology after a decade of research. Niskayuna scientists developed the filmless technology, which uses a glass panel coated with thin layers of silicon, metals and insulators.

That technology has been incorporated in the digital X-ray mammography machines GE Healthcare will make at a new facility at the RPI Technology Park. GE Healthcare next month plans to start moving equipment in to the East Greenbush plant, which is slated to open in spring 2009, Alhart said.

Under a separate Homeland Security project, GE’s security arm is also looking to add a nuclear detection component to its video surveillance technology. GE Security’s portfolio already includes equipment that detects explosives, narcotics, chemicals and biological threats.

It was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that stoked GE’s interest in the nuclear detector industry. A year later, the conglomerate started acquiring security companies to get a foothold in the market.

“Radiation detection is a new market GE is interested in getting into,” Alhart said.

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