Neutron Generation: Going from Tubes to Chips
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Date posted: 21/04/2012
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Computing Power

It was a figurative whack on the head that started Sandia National Laboratories distinguished technical staff member Juan Elizondo-Decanini thinking outside the box -- which in his case was a cylinder.

He developed a new configuration for neutron generators by turning from conventional cylindrical tubes to the flat geometry of computer chips. For size comparison, small neutron generators, which are like mini accelerators, are 1 to 2 inches in diameter, he said.

"The idea of a computer chip-shaped neutron source -- compact, simple and inexpensive to mass-produce -- opens the door for a host of applications," Elizondo-Decanini said.

The most practical, and the most likely to be near-term, would be a tiny medical neutron source implanted close to a tumor that would allow cancer patients to receive a low neutron dose over a long period at home instead of having to be treated at a hospital, he said.

The technology is ready to be licensed for some commercial applications, but other more complex commercial applications could take five to 10 years, Elizondo-Decanini said.

"It's really revolutionary technology," said Stewart Griffiths, who retired in December as a senior scientist and engineer at Sandia. "Juan's knowledge, insights and creativity into this enabled this really big jump from today to how we might do neutron generators in the future."

Griffiths said the impact won't be known for years, however.

"The maturation of the technology is still needed, but if that process is successful, it will have a huge impact," he said.

A three-year Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) project Elizondo-Decanini led demonstrated the basic technology necessary for a tiny, mass-produced neutron generator that he said can be adapted to medical and industrial applications. He said his team is seeking funding to make sure it works reliably and can be scaled to meet needs.

Elizondo-Decanini said it all started when now-retired senior manager Mike Sjulin told researchers he needed neutrons and he didn't care how they were produced. Before that whack on the head, Elizondo-Decanini said, "we were deep in the proverbial box, concentrating on making the cylinder more cylindrical."

Traditionally, accelerator-based neutron generators with deuterium ion and tritium targets have operated on cylinders, which makes it easy to control the electric field and ion beam shape, he said. But that geometry also limits size, beam current and neutron output.

So members of Elizondo-Decanini's team turned to computer chip geometry. Noting chips have two transistors per bit, they wondered if they could produce one neutron per transistor -- what one of Elizondo-Decanini's peers dubbed a "neutristor."

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