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, the university’s Director of Radiation Laboratories Jere Jenkins 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.

“After 9-11 I think the paradigm has shifted and Americans have realized that there are people out there wanting to destroy us any way possible,” Jenkins said. “So we wanted to create another layer of defense from these sort of terrorist attacks.”

The grant helped the team procure off-the-shelf technology, such as PDAs. The team then installed a new software-based backhaul systems developed by Andrew Longman, a consulting instrumentation scientist, Jenkins said.

Data from cell phones are sent over the cellular network into a vast database system, that then the system 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 also 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.

“We proved the concept, and it works, and now what we are looking for is a partnership between government and industry to develop a device that can be deployed by government and commercial users,” Jenkins said.