Innovative Research in Nuclear Nonproliferation: Georgia Tech's LANNS Group
September 27, 2023
By Ian Sargent
Georgia Tech is one of the nation’s premier institutions for nuclear studies. The Nuclear and Radiological Engineering and Medical Physics (NREMP) program, part of the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, provides students with several areas to choose from as an academic focus such as reactor engineering, instrumentation and control, and radiation detection. Additionally, select students can gain further experience working in faculty-led research labs like the Laboratory for Advanced Nuclear Nonproliferation and Safety (LANNS).
The LANNS Group
LANNS is led by Anna Erickson, Associate Chair for Research and Woodruff Professor. Erickson has published extensively on reactor designs and novel radiation detection methods. She’s also the co-author of Active Interrogation in Nuclear Security: Science, Technology, and Systems, published by Nature Springer in 2018.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of my role as a faculty member at Georgia Tech working in nuclear nonproliferation is the ability to contribute to global security,” Erickson said. “Knowing that your work has a direct impact on the safety and well-being of people worldwide is highly motivating.”
Erickson earned her Ph.D. in 2011 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Initially, Erickson studied fast neutron reactors—a low-waste, fuel-efficient alternative to the more common thermal reactors. Nuclear security and detection offered a less theoretical and more hands-on approach to her research. Her expertise in both areas has given her a unique perspective on the intersection of reactor design and nonproliferation, and it’s this perspective that is at the core of LANNS.
A Multidisciplinary Approach
Nuclear nonproliferation is a broad, branching concept commonly associated with studies in international relations and the diplomatic efforts involved in advancing the peaceful use of atomic energy. Underpinning these efforts, however, are the complex sciences of nuclear physics, reactor design, and novel technologies to detect and monitor radioactive material. The LANNS group is a multidisciplinary team operating within this space. LANNS works in tandem with faculty and students from the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, the School of Chemistry & Biochemistry, and the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.
“Non-proliferation challenges are inherently complex and multifaceted,” Erickson said. “They often require interdisciplinary solutions that leverage insights from various fields. Working with other Schools allows us to approach these challenges from multiple angles, fostering innovation and creativity.”
Matthew Dunbrack is a Ph.D. student working in LANNS. His research focuses on using machine learning and other methods of data processing to develop antineutrino-based safeguards. Dunbrack isn’t the first nuclear engineer in his family; his grandfather was also a nuclear engineer and worked on the Navy’s Poseidon missile program.
“I remember hearing carefully worded stories about his time working on confidential projects and was mesmerized by the mystery of the nuclear field,” Dunbrack said.
After studying at the University of Florida Dunbrack joined the NRE program at Georgia Tech with the goal of developing safer nuclear technologies. His research in antineutrino safeguards can potentially lead to improved monitoring of nuclear reactors and the safer deployment of nuclear reactors to non-nuclear states.
“All fission reactors emit antineutrinos. If we can measure and analyze enough antineutrinos, we can ensure that a reactor is operating as expected.”
This past May, Dunbrack traveled to Vienna, Austria to present his research at the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management and the European Safeguards Research & Development Association Joint Annual Meeting.
“It is always great to hear about the cutting-edge research being done in the field of nuclear nonproliferation,” Dunbrack said about his experience. “With the meeting’s proximity to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters, I felt my research was making a difference on an international scale.”
Ph.D. student Mackenzie Duce specializes in researching the next generation of detector materials.
Pictured left to right: Ph.D. student Mackenzie Duce, Associate Chair for Research and Woodruff Professor Anna Erickson, and Ph.D. student Matthew Dunbrack.
Novel Radiation Detection
Last year, the IAEA reported 146 incidents involving nuclear materials, including five instances of illegal trafficking. The LANNS group’s research into novel radiation detection technologies can help play a vital role in preventing malicious use of nuclear material.
“A small quantity of nuclear material, as compact as a baseball, could potentially be used to build a nuclear weapon if it falls into the wrong hands,” Erickson said. “The small size of these materials makes them difficult to detect because they can be effectively concealed by lead or other dense substances that block the radiation they emit. This is why the smuggling of nuclear materials is a significant concern in nuclear security and non-proliferation efforts. Technology plays a crucial role in our attempts to uncover covert activities in this regard.”
Mackenzie Duce is a Ph.D. student with the LANNS group and specializes in researching the next generation of detector materials.
“To me, radiation detection is the perfect intersection of basic science and hands-on experiments,” she said. Duce has enjoyed the ability to learn alongside her colleagues in the lab and strongly encourages students interested in nonproliferation to get involved in research as soon as possible.
“Our group has fostered a collaborative and supportive environment such that we can draw upon the expertise of one another as we address our own research challenges.”
Duce is a co-inventor on a recent patent filing for a novel silicon detector and says her work in the LANNS group has sharpened her skills as a researcher and provided opportunities to grow as a mentor and teacher. She’s also enjoyed using the advanced facilities available at Tech.
“We have a unique variety of radiation sources that most schools do not have access to,” she said. “The cleanroom facility has also been an incredible and unique resource; I’ve spent many hours in there supporting work on novel photodetector fabrication using tools that are just not available at other universities.”
The LANNS group and other labs working with the NRE program have benefited from continued growth of the program and recent investments. One example is the creation of the Consortium for Enabling Technologies and Innovation, or ETI. The ETI Consortium is composed of 14 universities and 12 national laboratories, led by Georgia Tech. The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) awarded the consortium $25 million to develop new technologies and educational programs to support the agency’s nuclear science, security, and nonproliferation goals.
The LANNS group is a sterling example of Georgia Tech’s ongoing commitment to innovative research and the development of new detection technologies are vital components of a safer future. More importantly, Erickson’s team harnesses the exceptional potential of Georgia Tech students to become leaders and changemakers.
"Technology will undoubtedly be a key factor in our nonproliferation endeavors,” Erickson said. “However, we must also underscore the human element, with our students poised to play a pivotal role in shaping versatile and adaptive non-proliferation strategies that can adapt to changing security dynamics and technological progress.”