NPRE student’s virtual model reveals Engineering campus radiation levels
Through his virtual world, Christian Zircher can show just where the hot spots are on the Engineering at Illinois campus.
Clopping along the six-block area between Springfield Avenue and Green Street running north and south, and Goodwin Avenue and Wright Street running east and west, a resident of Zircher’s simulation, the Radiological Sensor Network within a Virtual Environment, passes by areas lit mostly with blues and greens. The colors signify mild amounts of radiation, from 20-40 counts per second on a radiation detector.
But nearer to the steps of Wesley United Methodist Church on Green, a tower of color emerges, stretching from blue to green to yellow to red and even black, signifying counts of 80 to 90 per second. Zircher explains the church’s granite steps are made of thorium or uranium, both radioactive materials.
An even greater column of color (and higher radiation count) is detected near a wall of the Nuclear Research Laboratory, on Goodwin. Inside the building at that spot is a laboratory where a large radioactive cesium source is stored.
Having earned his master’s degree in May in Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering at Illinois, Zircher has blended in his project the research focuses of NPRE faculty members Clair Sullivan and Rizwan Uddin. Sullivan is an expert in radiation detection, and Uddin has gained international recognition for applying virtual reality game technology to nuclear engineering.
“In our group, we have a radiation sensor network made with mobile detectors that have been carried around campus,” said Zircher, who also earned a bachelor’s in NPRE in 2015. “I’m in charge of visualizing the data so it’s understandable to people without nuclear backgrounds.”
Sullivan is part of the Consortium for Nonproliferation Enabling Capabilities (CNEC), a federal program to develop multi-disciplinary and cross-functional technology to detect foreign nuclear weapon proliferation activities. Among objectives, her group is concerned with detecting radiation levels that rise above what is expected and typical in a given area.
Creating a visual map of radiation sources around campus has provided a testing ground. Sullivan’s students carrying mobile sensors across campus have collected the radiation readings. Kept in cloud storage, the data is cleaned and analyzed. At that point, Zircher’s work begins.
“I’ve written a script that first pulls the data down from the cloud storage unit and streams it into the Unity (virtual game) environment,” he said. “I used a human character (in the game) to mimic walking with the data. As the color moves up the color spectrum, the higher the radiation.” The yellow and red and black colors appear when the radiation rises above a certain threshold.
“The red alarms will stay (lit) rather than disappear so you know where to further investigate; it marks the location of higher radiation,” Zircher said. “Outside NRL the readings get to black, but it’s still safe as long as you don’t stand there forever.
“The idea behind the project is to make very visible anything that would be above the background (radiation levels).”
The project has been a culmination of two years of work for Zircher. In building the realistic simulation, he has used SketchUp, a modeling program favored by architects, as well as photographs he has taken himself or has downloaded from Google Earth. Helping him on the modeling process has been NPRE undergraduates Aries Loumis and John Helck. Presented at the 2017 American Nuclear Society Student Conference held in April in Pittsburgh, the project won the “Best in Track, Nuclear Nonproliferation Safety” award.
The most challenging part of the project was bringing data points into the Unity game system. “I had no idea how to put dynamic data into a virtual environment to visualize it,” Zircher said, “but eventually I figured it out. All the programming and data streaming/visualization I’ve done on my own. It was really sporadic; I kept having ‘Eureka!’ moments.”
Next steps for the work would be to show radiation level fluctuations in the area in real time – Zircher’s version can lag up to 10 minutes – and create a historical heat map that shows information collected from data points over a period of time.
Zircher, who is working with Loumis in creating a startup, CZium, to commercialize the technology, has been pleased with the work he has accomplished. “This project is very good for our research group for getting a ‘wow’ factor out there and for presenting,” Zircher said. “It’s very intuitive.”