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John Auxier in his Lab

Before, During, and After the Bomb

By Whitney Heins. Photography by Shawn Poynter.

Barely a day goes by that news of a nuclear threat doesn’t make it into the headlines. And, what if the unthinkable happens?

Time is of the essence to ensure survivors are safe and those responsible are stopped from doing more harm. Too much time spent trying to figure out what happened, how it happened, and who did it could cost lives and money.

John Auxier II, research assistant professor of nuclear engineering, is on the job. His research, funded by the US Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security, is one of few in the country that seeks quick and easy ways to answer such questions throughout the entire bomb cycle.

“Our research is everything from the front and back end of nuclear forensics,” he explained, likening his research work to the popular television show CSI, short for crime scene investigation. “We’re trying to figure out systems that enable first responders to get information on-site within hours rather than having to send it to the lab and wait for days. Getting data faster helps decision makers make their next move faster.”

Auxier, who is on faculty at the UT’s Bredesen Center and the Institute for Nuclear Security, conducts research within the framework of three scenarios—when suspicious material is intercepted, when a bomb is detonated, and the aftermath. He seeks to find information that can answer critical questions such as—what kind of bomb was it (aka did it have plutonium or uranium, or was it a “dirty” bomb)? Where did it come from? Who is responsible for it? And, what threat still looms?

At the front end of the bomb cycle—finding suspicious material—Auxier and his students are working on a method where responders can determine what the material is by using handheld lasers while at the scene. The laser method, known as Raman spectroscopy, characterizes the surface of the material by illuminating it using a single color of light. The way the light interacts with the material can reveal the material’s makeup, and even when it was last machined.

This information can help decisionmakers narrow down a list of suspects since not every country has access to the same kinds of bomb-making materials. And, US intelligence may know when countries likely engineered certain types of bombs or bomb-making materials.

During a bomb explosion, Auxier and his students are tapping into cameras such as those in ATMs, security systems, and people’s cell phones to gather information about the weapon. Using a fifteen-inch industrial-grade torch—the same kind used to paint airplane wings—they create atomic lines that they then video for review.

“When atoms get excited, they give off a light like the yellow glow from a street light, for example,” said Auxier.

“We can look at the particular colors in that spectrum and relate it back to certain elements and that can tell us what materials are in the bomb.”

—John Auxier

After the fireball is gone and smoking rubble is left, Auxier and his students are investigating another method using handheld lasers, called laser induced breakdown spectroscopy. When this laser is shined on the rubble, it turns the debris into plasma that emits light holding clues to the elements within. This method gives responders an initial idea of the type of bomb that was used and enables them to collect good samples for more detailed analysis at a lab.

Auxier calls himself an “innovative collaborator,” saying he would not be able to do what he does without the help of his students.

“I’ve had the great opportunity to work with really talented students. We all fit in a small office and throw ideas on the whiteboard. And, I have a lot of bad ideas,” he laughed. “The students critique me. They don’t understand the limitations, so they look at problems a different way and push science forward.”

Auxier is passionate about doing research that supports students locally and can provide a pipeline of skilled workers to US national laboratories and government.

He’s also very passionate about doing “fantastically cool science”—and making our world safer.

“We are trying to solve some very challenging problems and create a skillset we hope we never have to use.”