Researchers at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., announced that they are working with the state to develop a system of networked cell phones that can detect radiation from dirty or nuclear bombs.

For the past two years, Jere Jenkins, the university's director of radiation laboratories, has led a team of researchers focused on developing a system that could blanket the nation with millions of cell phones equipped with radiation sensors that are capable of detecting radioactive material. The project was supported by a $25,000 proof-of-concept seed grant from the Indiana Department of Transportation through the Joint Transportation Research Program and School of Civil Engineering at Purdue.

“We wanted to create another layer of defense from these sort of terrorist attacks,” Jenkins said.

Data from cell phones are sent over the cellular network into a vast database system that then analyzes threat level, location and other information. It also interprets data from multiple sensor types, Jenkins said.

In addition to detecting radiological dirty bombs, the system also could be used to detect nuclear weapons. Jenkins said it could be used to detect spills of radioactive materials or be trained to ignore known radiation sources, such as bananas, which contain a radioactive isotope of potassium.

“It can isolate probable targets versus false targets,” he said.

Current tests show the system can detect a weak radiation source 15 feet from the sensors.