Your phone can display your radiation exposure after a nuclear disaster

Testing personal electronics can help people in need of life-saving treatment make it faster

In the event of a nuclear attack or accident, personal electronics can be used as a radiation detector.

A ceramic insulator, found in many devices such as cell phones and fitness trackers, emits high-temperature light that reflects past exposure to nuclear radiation, researchers reported in February. The discovery can allow experts to measure a person’s radiation dose within hours, while typical blood tests can take weeks.

“Everyone’s freaking out about radiation,” said study co-author Robert Hayes, a nuclear engineer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Rapid assessment of the risk of radiation-related illness after a nuclear disaster can help provide emergency medical treatment.

When nuclear radiation floods the ceramic with electronic components called mounting resistors, the radiation changes the distribution of faulty electrons in the ceramic crystal structure. When heated to hundreds of degrees Celsius, ceramic glows and the wavelength of light that makes up this luminescence reflects the electronic distribution of the material. From there, researchers can determine the dose of radiation caused by the change in electrons in the material.

Hayes and his NC State colleague Ryan O’Mara tested their method by detonating mounting resistors with 0.005, 0.015, 0.03, 0.06, 0.125, 0.25, or 0.5 gray rays. (One gray corresponds to one joule of radiation per kilogram of target material.) For lower radiation values, researchers can usually estimate the dose at around 0.01 shade of gray using the technology. At an exposure of 0.5 gray, the uncertainty is 0.05 shades of gray.

This test is sensitive enough to assess whether a person is likely to need immediate treatment for radiation poisoning, which can result from one to multiple levels of gray matter, says Hayes. It can also indicate if a person has a higher risk of cancer – which can be caused by around 0.2 shade of gray.

However, the machine for measuring the luminescent glow of ceramics costs around $ 150,000. Therefore, residents of areas affected by nuclear disasters should send their personal electronic devices to specialized testing facilities.

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