Scientist Interview: David Mahon

Dr. David Mahon (University of Glasgow), together with Professor Ralf Kaiser, Professor David Ireland, Dr Craig Shearer and Professor Raffaello D’Alessandro, helped to organise the Royal Society Theo Murphy international meeting on the subject of Cosmic-ray Muography in the U.K. from May 14-15, 2018 which included lectures on the topic of recent worldwide industry and academic cooperative muography projects.  On January 2019, a volume of the Royal Society publication “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences”  was published on this Cosmic-ray Muography scientific meeting and featured a paper on Dr. David Mahon’s research.

Currently, Dr. Mahon is a STFC Innovation Fellow at the University of Glasgow, and in 2017 his research was sponsored by a Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship.  He is also Director of the Scottish company called Lynkeos which was funded by a £4.8 million R&D programme provided by Sellafield Ltd. on behalf of the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and is a spin off company from the Nuclear Physics group of the University of Glasgow.  Lynkeos has been given several awards since its foundation including: “Best Business Collaboration” KE Award, the Rushlight Award, IOP Buisness Start-Up Award, the Falkirk Herald Business Award, and their work was also recognised as “Highly Commended” by the U.K. Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in the Best Technical Innovation category.

In this interview, he discussed the Muon Imaging System developed jointly by the University of Glasgow and Lynkeos and outlined plans for future development of this muography project called the “Muon Imaging System”,  which has been recently delivered to the Sellafield nuclear site where it is currently performing waste characterisation measurements.

(Left to Right) Managing Director Prof. Ralf Kaiser, Dr. David Mahon and the CEO of the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority David Peattie after being given a “Highly Commeded” rating in the Best Technical Innovation category of the U.K. Nuclear Decommishing Authority.

Q: With the present Muon Imaging System (MIS) that you have developed, what is the maximum size of the nuclear waste storage drums that you can inspect using muography?  What are some future modifications that are planned to increase the capabilities of the MIS?

“At present, our MIS is capable of inspecting drums up to 1m x 1m x 1.5m.  Our technology is easy to scale and can be tailored to suit the needs of our customers.  Our MIS at Sellafield is undertaking an intensive industry validation campaign, the results of which will influence what improvements, if any, are required for future systems.   Our innovation strategy is driven by the requirements of the end user.”

Q: Now that this project to create the first muon imaging system for the U.K. nuclear site Sellafield been completed and delivered how will this system be applied?

“We were contracted by Innovate U.K. as part of its First-Of-A-Kind Deployment of Innovation programme to commercialise our MIS.  At present, this system is operating at Sellafield and performing waste characterisation measurements.   We originally developed this technology at the University of Glasgow alongside the U.K. National Nuclear Laboratory under Nuclear Decommissioning Authority funding.  The commercialisation of particle detector technology developed in academia has been a big challenge, especially with respect to obtaining CE certification.”

Photo: The Muon Imaging System (MIS) in the lab prior to delivery to the Sellafield site.

Q: What is the process and what have been the largest challenges involved in developing this muography technique so it can be integrated into a commercial system?  

“From the start of our research in 2009, we worked closely with nuclear industry experts and were conscious to develop the technology with the industry’s strict requirements in mind.  For example, this included the choice of inert plastic scintillators rather than gas as our detection medium.  However, this CE certification process was still a very time consuming and costly exercise, and we’re very thankful for the support of our partners at National Nuclear Laboratory during this process.  We are wise to the CE marking process now, so the next time will be a lot easier!”

Q: Do you think in the future, muography detectors can be built to be incorporated into nuclear storage facilities?  What would be the biggest challenges you would need to overcome in oder to do this?

“Yes, I believe this will happen in the near future.  There is huge potential for this technique to influence how we store nuclear waste.  Muography is the only passive, health-and-safety neutral way to inspect the contents of shielded nuclear waste containers.  The capability is independent of the storage medium, which means that it can be used on a wide-range of containers and waste forms.   The biggest challenge will be to demonstrate the technology can reliably do what we claim it can do.  We have already started to address this challenge with our Sellafield MIS.”

Q: Do you have plans to expand this technique for nuclear storage monitoring in other countries?

“Until now, our funding has been from the UK Government with a specific objective of addressing challenges within the U.K. Nuclear Industry.  So the UK has been our primary focus, and also where our expertise lies.  However, we now have a product that conforms to the relevant EU health and safety standards, so we are increasingly active outside the UK.”

Q: How has the process of developing this muography technique with the industrial company cooperation of Lynkeos been different from your experience working on projects that are done in a purely academic environment?

“The Lynkeos team is the same academic team that developed the technology.  As the researchers are the same, the process hasn’t been too different.  Some things have to be done differently now that we are a company, but these mostly relate to the commercial exploitation of the technology and not so much its development.”

Q: What are some strategies you have been using to engage with the public and inform them about your research activities?

“When time allows it, we are active in engaging the public.  In fact, we were recently awarded a University of Glasgow Knowledge Exchange & Public Engagement Award.  We hosted a Royal Society Theo Murphy International Workshop on Cosmic-ray Muography in May 2018, which was open to the public to attend.  After this, I was invited by New Scientist to present at New Scientist Live 2018 on the Technology Stage.  This was a great opportunity to engage directly with the general public and to tell them all about our diverse field.  Aside from these events, we have a social media presence, which we are steadily increasing.  In fact, we will soon recruit an intern to help with this outreach.”