Brigham Young University professors have developed a technique that could spot from afar whether a site is being used to make nuclear weapons. The model precisely characterizes the material in each pixel of an image taken from a long-wave infrared camera. The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration funded the project.

BYU's Candace Berrett (right) developed a new method to detect and describe materials in each pixel of an infrared photo. The project was funded through a grant awarded to BYU's Gustavious Williams (left).

The government's long-term goal for infrared technology is to remotely detect the exact materials, chemicals and gases coming and going from factories or other sites suspected of illegal nuclear production. Infrared cameras capture wavelengths of light that are not visible to the human eye. Hyperspectral infrared cameras capture this light in hundreds of narrow bands. Since different materials reflect or absorb different bands of light, scientists can characterize the materials by analyzing the picture.

The novelty of the BYU study is that it directly separates the incoming signals to provide the material’s unique signature. As the technique develops, this could do much more than spot a bomb-making plant. Imagine taking an infrared picture from above a city struck by an earthquake or tornado. In addition to spotting all the gas leaks, it could reveal the exact gases being leaked and their concentrations in different neighborhoods.