Local company inks DOE deal

PartTec, a local physics research and manufacturing company, announced this month that it reached an exclusive licensing agreement with the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to develop and apply new neutron detector technologies.

The agreement will help alleviate the worldwide shortage of helium-3 by providing a new kind of neutron detector that does not use the dwindling substance. Neutron detectors are devices that locate neutrons in different molecular experiments.

“Helium-3-powered neutron detectors were the detectors of choice, but now that the helium-3 supply in the world is almost gone, alternatives are being heavily sought out,” PartTec CEO Herschel Workman said.

According to Oak Ridge, helium-3 is the byproduct of the radioactive decay of tritium, a hydrogen isotope, that the U.S. has accumulated from the refurbishment and dismantling of its nuclear stockpiles. That supply is running out, and current helium-3 production can’t keep up with the demand for it.

Because the licensing agreement is confidential, Workman said he could disclose only a few details about how the new detector works, but he said it uses circuitry software and electromagnetic technologies instead of helium-3.

“These new detectors are among the top three alternatives in the world,” Workman said.

PartTec is moving to mass produce these new neutron detectors and has been in talks with Asian and European laboratories. Workman said PartTec has the “exclusive worldwide right” to manufacture and sell the new technology.

“This will create jobs and the need for more collaboration with grad students, professors and also the availability of internships and volunteer work,” Workman said.
PartTec is based in Bloomington, but its manufacturing center is in Linton. The company got its start here at the IU Cyclotron Facility and still continues to collaborate with the facility. Today, PartTec is primarily involved in the research, development and manufacture of detectors and instruments used in molecular research.

“We build delicate and sensitive detectors and built all of the detectors for the Spallation Neutron Source at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory,” Workman said.

The Spallation Neutron Source program is an accelerator-based neutron source for which neutron-scattering research primarily takes place. Neutron scattering is a type of research in which neutron beams are fired into materials at very high speeds to study the material’s behaviors, properties and characteristics at the molecular level. This is where the neutron detectors are used. They detect the neutrons deflected off the material and report the results back to the researchers.

Oak Ridge is home of the world’s largest pulsed, or man-made, neutrons used for research, and it was originally built as part of the secret Manhattan Project during the 1940s. Oak Ridge is the Department of Energy’s largest science and energy laboratory.

“We have had an ongoing partnership for about five years, where PartTec supplies detectors for our research,” said Gregory Flickinger, Oak Ridge senior commercialization manager.

Besides the mass production of these new detectors, Oak Ridge and PartTec are expecting more advancements and applications for their detectors in areas such as security and research.

“These detectors will allow for more research and studies to be done, which leads to more discoveries too that are made in such areas such as the medical, pharmaceutics and other scientific fields,” Flickinger said.  

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