The detector works like this: Durham and his co-investigators sandwich the pipe in question between two four-by-four-foot aluminum slabs. When an errant muon passes through one of the slabs, it sends a message to a computer, which logs the particle’s trajectory. The muon continues through the pipe, then passes through the slab on the other side—which again measures the particle’s angle. By calculating the difference between angles, researchers can get an idea of the path the muon took through the pipe’s molecules. And with enough muons, they can draw a pretty good picture of what’s going on inside the pipe.
Or inside anything, really. Muon detectors were invented after the 9/11 attacks, as a way of looking for smuggled nukes. It’s no problem to sneak a bomb past an X-ray detector. But muons can see through cars, can see through boats, can see through shipping containers. “At Freeport, in the Bahamas, they have a detector big enough to drive an 18-wheeler through,” says Durham. The detector can find a lump of uranium in about a minute. “A lot of stuff goes through the Bahamas on its way to the East coast,” says Durham.
But finding a glowing hunk of uranium is a lot easier than detecting the structure of a faulty pipe—hence the Los Alamos breakthrough. Compared to the Bahaman detector, the Los Alamos model moves pretty slow. This is because muons are rare. “We only get one muon per square centimeter per minute,” says Durham, so it can take about 4 to 6 hours to survey a single section of pipe. Increase the area of the detector, and you can get a faster picture.
This sounds quite bad ass!