A ground-breaking 'drive-through' scanner which screens for radioactive material is being developed to improve security at airports, ports and other significant buildings, thanks to a GBP99,000 investment from NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), the organisation which invests in UK innovation.
The innovation comes as experts warn of inadequacies in existing techniques which detect radiation without identifying the source, resulting in frustrating, expensive and time-consuming false alarms.
"Current technology does not distinguish between a dirty bomb and a cancer patient, a truck load of ceramic tiles or a crate of bananas - all of which are radioactive, to some extent," says Dr Brian Lever, of Southampton-based Symetrica Ltd.
"That's not good enough in the world post 9/11, when security services need to accurately identify radioactive threat materials. Symetrica's unique technology discriminates between materials which do not pose a threat and those that do, offering a crucial new tool in the fight against terror."
Gamma rays - the shortest wavelength electromagnetic radiation - are emitted naturally by many things, from plutonium and other nuclear materials to granite, coffee and fertilizer!
Any scanning equipment which detects nuclear radiation without being more specific is bound to cause an operational nightmare for security staff screening vehicles and cargo at busy ports and airports.
"The equipment immediately distinguishes between materials which are a threat, and those that aren't, on the spot without the need to send anything off to a laboratory. It's the logical step on from existing X-ray checks, and it takes security onto a new level," says Dr Lever.
Symetrica's portfolio of gamma ray detector hardware and designs and signal processing software has evolved from technologies originally developed for space science.
The innovation was masterminded by Dr David Ramsden, then at the University of Southampton's Department of Physics and Astronomy, where he built an international reputation for his expertise in developing radiation imaging techniques.
Spun out of the university in 2002 to exploit the technology, Symetrica is developing both a sophisticated new hand-held scanner - 10 times more sensitive than competing models - and the revolutionary 'drive-through' machine, capable of screening vehicles and cargo at speed.
The NESTA investment, through its Invention and Innovation programme, enables Symetrica to produce a prototype detector system to demonstrate the performance of its technology.
Mark White, Director of NESTA's Invention and Innovation programme, said:
"Homeland security is one of the most pressing concerns in Britain today. NESTA is delighted to be investing in an idea which has the potential to radically improve screening systems at ports and airports around the world."
Symetrica Ltd has appointed as CEO Heddwyn Davies, who has international experience running VC-backed companies supplying detection and imaging systems for defence and related markets.
Dr Lever, Symetrica's Operations Director, was for many years a senior manager within ICI and AstraZeneca as well as spending a period on secondment to the DTI Innovation Unit.