Nuclear Engineering

Utah Nuclear Engineering Facilities (UNEF)

UNEF provides the state-of-the-art laboratories used for alpha, beta, gamma and neutron radiation detection, irradiation of material samples to study various effects of various types of radiation, and neutron activation analysis techniques (nondestructive technique to find a sample elemental composition). UNEF maintains a 7,500 sq ft nuclear engineering and radiochemistry facility, including a fully operable 100 kW TRIGA Mark-1 nuclear reactor, 3 High Purity Germanium (HPGe) gamma detectors, liquid scintillation counting, and alpha spectrometry.

Please include this statement when acknowledging us in your research:

Neutron Activation Analysis/Passive Spectroscopy/Isotope Generation/Sample Irradiation (whichever services were used) was performed at the Utah Nuclear Engineering Core Facility, University of Utah.”

Determining Elemental Composition of Material Samples

UNEF maintains the only Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) facility in Utah, which provides a highly sensitive technique for identification and quantification of major, minor and trace elements in a material sample that is non-destructive. The method of NAA requires a steady source of neutrons of required energy distribution. We provide such a source within the irradiation ports of our nuclear research reactor. These ports include a thermal irradiator, fast neutron irradiation facility, pneumatic irradiator, and central irradiator (see Figure 1). With these four different ports we are well equipped to irradiate a variety of materials.

Figure 1: TRIGA Nuclear Reactor and Irradiation Reports

Once the sample is irradiated in the reactor, it is moved to one of our gamma spectroscopy stations where it is measured for a gamma ray spectrum distribution. That spectrum will reveal elemental composition of a sample. The NAA protocol is strict and requires full assistance by the UNEF staff. Some example applications of NAA are the following:

  • Industrial Samples: Crude Oil, filter media and resins, fly ash, plastics, synthetic fibers, and textiles.
  • Agricultural, Biological and Environmental Samples: Agricultural products, benthic organisms, biological tissues and fluids, bone, fertilizer, fish (tissue and eggs), food products, forensic samples, plants, sediment, sludges, vegetation, water, wood.
  • Geologic Samples: Coal, ores, rocks, soils/sediments.
  • High Purity Matrix Samples: Carbon/graphite, ceramics, chemicals, metallic alloys, pharmaceuticals, refractory kiln bricks, semiconductor substrates and processing materials.


We can fully support studies analysis and research for/in: Museum (archeological) artifacts, crime scene elements, forensics studies, space science (meteorites studies), biological and medical related studies, environmental science and engineering analysis, air water and soil pollution studies, and many more.

For certain elements, NAA offers sensitivities that are superior to those possible by other techniques, on the order of parts per billion or better.

Advantages of using NAA for trace element analysis are:

  • It is a multi-element techniquecapable of determining approximately 65 elements in many types of materials;
  • It is non-destructiveand therefore, does not suffer from the errors associated with yield determinations;
  • It has very high sensitivities for most of the elements that can be determined by NAA – most detection limits range from ~0.05 to ~50 ppm (≤1 ppb for some high-purity materials)
  • It is highly precise and accurate;
  • It permits the analysis of samples ranging in volume from 0.1 ml to 20 ml, and in mass from ~0.001 gram to 10 grams depending on sample density.
  • Samples for NAA can be solids, liquids, gases, mixtures, and suspensions.
Material Sample Signatures Through Passive Spectroscopy

High-resolution gamma-ray spectroscopy is used for the detection and measurement of gamma rays. These solid-state detectors provide excellent energy resolution for discriminating energy peaks produced in a measured gamma-ray energy spectrum. Our counting lab contains three Canberra germanium detectors that operate under Canberra LYNX data acquisition systems for spectral analysis. Our counting lab is also equipped with a multi-chamber alpha spectroscopy and liquid scintillation counting stations.

Isotope Generation

Our reactor facility provides us with the ability for isotope production that finds wide-ranging applications in various fields, including industry, research, agriculture and medicine. Radioisotope production in a reactor is advantageous due to the large volume for irradiation, simultaneous irradiation of several samples and the ability to produce a wide variety of radioisotopes.

Examples of isotopes that we may produce include:

  • Antimony-122/124
  • Argon-41
  • Bromine-82
  • Cobalt-60
  • Iron-59
  • Sodium-24
  • …and many others depending on user’s requirements.
Sample Irradiation

Material samples can be irradiated in various neutron energy sections of the reactor. Usually these irradiations are used to study the effects of neutrons on materials. We also can provide real-time monitoring of the effects of neutron/gamma radiation on MEMS/NEMS.

Some examples of sample irradiations include:

  • Nuclear materials (metals, vessel steel, concrete)
  • Fiber optic sensors
  • Fission track etch samples
  • Nuclear instruments and detectors (e.g. for calibration measurements or radiation damage studies)
  • Semiconductor devices and materials (e.g. for radiation damage studies or transmutation doping, NEMS, MEMS)
Hours of Operation

Monday-Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm


Merrill Engineering Building (MEB) Room 1206
50 S. Central Campus Dr.
Salt Lake City, UT, 84112


Ryan Schow, Reactor Supervisor