In 1942, just four years after scientists first split the atom, an assembly of brilliant minds gathered to develop that technology into a nuclear weapon. Sara Pozzi learned about the Manhattan Project in middle school, and it sparked a lifelong fascination that has shaped her career.
The massive underground effort spanned an exciting time when scientific progress came in leaps, but it was the nuclear chain reaction – an atom splitting and releasing neutrons, which in turn split other atoms and release more neutrons – that captivated Pozzi, now a professor in Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences. Here was a reaction that, depending on the circumstances, could produce clean energy or massive destruction.
Today, Pozzi leads her own collection of brilliant minds — the Consortium for Verification Technology (CVT) — a multidisciplinary project established by a $25 million National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) grant. The CVT, which includes 13 major research universities and eight national labs, has a similarly urgent charge: find ways to ensure that countries are doing their parts to keep nuclear bomb-building materials out of the hands of rogue states and terrorist organizations.
“Around the world we have treaties to help control proliferation and hopefully stop it,” said Pozzi. “For these existing and future treaties to be effective, we need to have a means of verifying that we’re all doing what we agreed to do.”
Pozzi’s international standing in the field of nuclear nonproliferation made her a natural choice to lead the CVT, said NERS department chair Ron Gilgenbach. A native of Milan, Italy, she collaborates with researchers around the globe. Her Detection for Nuclear Nonproliferation Group supports 15 doctoral students with its research projects, about triple the department average.
Pozzi’s research group has developed a good working relationship with the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration, and her graduate students have the opportunity to test their devices with weapons-grade materials at the European Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy.
Pozzi chose nuclear engineering because she wanted to work on real and pressing problems, and few are more thorny or pressing than nuclear nonproliferation.
Protecting the United States alone is a huge challenge, complicated by the vast number of potential entry points—hundreds of airports, thousands of miles of coastline—for a nuclear device. Detection instruments, Pozzi says, need to be sensitive enough to pick up radiation from materials that would almost certainly be shielded to hide that radiation, yet discerning enough to not be set off by the naturally-occurring radiation that’s around us all the time.
Pozzi’s lab develops new technologies to detect highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium—key ingredients in atomic bomb building. And as traditional detection materials like helium-3 become harder to find, Pozzi and her group have discovered that other materials can not only detect radiation, but – after some calculations – tell the difference between a nuclear weapon and something more benign.
She also trains the next generation of nuclear engineers. Pozzi came to Michigan from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where summer interns always had to leave just as they were getting good. Now undergraduates come to her with more enthusiasm than knowledge; graduate students come with ideas and fresh perspectives, and she has the privilege of shaping them into scientists who will make their own mark in the field.
“When they’re working on a research project I want them to understand why they’re doing it and what the potential is,” she said. “If that research is successful how does it change the state of art? That’s something we talk about every day.”