A Nuclear Scavenger Hunt: START uses students to test new radiation detecting technology

by Tristan Madden

On November 20, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, hosted an unusual scavenger hunt, asking students to use specialized devices to map out hot spots of natural radiation on campus.

Students lined up in front of a table outside of STAMP to receive a device that, at first glance, looks like an every day smartphone. But this device, the Kromek D3S, doesn’t make calls or take pictures; it detects radiation.

Tristan Madden/ Pulsefeedz
Tristan Madden/ Pulsefeedz
The Kromek D3S Tristan Madden/ Pulsefeedz
The Kromek D3S
Tristan Madden/ Pulsefeedz


Students also received a sheet of paper with a series of cryptic clues written on it, each one directing them to a natural and benign source of radiation on campus. The goal for the scavenger hunt participants was to use the Kromek D3S to map out the natural radiation present across the University of Maryland campus, according to the proctor of the scavenger hunt Gary Ackerman. Students who managed to do this quickly and effectively won prizes such as IPads and Kindle Fire tablets.

But START, a research center at the University of Maryland sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, wasn’t simply letting students play around with expensive technology. The goal of the scavenger hunt was to test the efficacy of the Kromek. By putting it into the hands of a couple dozen students, START hoped to see how this brand new technology performed in the field.

Because of its primary function, one might assume the Kromek is like a Geiger counter, but that is not a fair comparison. Ackerman said, “If a Geiger counter is like one of those old bulky cell phones from the 90’s, the Kromek is a smart phone.”Ackerman explained that a Geiger counter can only detect very high levels of radiation, but the Kromek is capable of identifying even the most minute traces of radiation in a given area.

A Geiger counter Courtesy: commons.wikimedia.org
A Geiger counter
Courtesy: commons.wikimedia.org

Michael Egnoto, the supervisor of the scavenger hunt, said that aside from evaluating new technology, mapping out this natural radiation helps START better understand how radiation is distributed around us, which he said has long term benefits for society.

“Long term, this helps us improve technologies that may be sensitive to certain types of radiation. Some electronics for instance, can become unreliable when around even naturally occurring levels of radiation.”

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