SilentBorder: how research in fundamental physics spins-off applications for society

The H2020 research and innovation action for security (H2020-RIA) called SilentBorder, a catchy acronym for “Cosmic Ray Tomograph for Identification of Hazardous and Illegal Goods hidden in Trucks and Sea Containers” has been recently approved and funded by the European commission. This action involves 3 academic institutes from Estonia, Belgium and UK, 3 industrial partners from Italy, Germany and Switzerland and 3 custom departments from Estonia, Turkey and Finland. The project started on the 1st of May 2021 of this year and will run for 4 years. It is steered by a Management and Scientific Board with Prof. Gholamreza Anbarjafari (University of Tartu) as main coordinator. Dr. Andrea Giammanco, permanent FNRS researcher at the CP3 center of IRMP, is the coordinator of the UCLouvain node.

Andrea Giammanco is an experimentalist in high-energy particle physics. He has built his career working at the large collider experiments at CERN, ALEPH and CMS . He is an expert on data analysis (including machine learning techniques), detector commissioning and particle simulations. In parallel to his research in fundamental physics, he recently launched the first Belgian activities related to muon radiography, an emerging spin-off of particle physics techniques that in recent years has reached fields ranging from volcanology to archaeology. With his team and in collaboration with Prof. Eduardo Cortina, also at the IRMP, he has already successfully developed a first portable muon telescope, which is based on a small-size RPC, a type of detector widely used in particle physics experiments.

Everyday, customs workers need to tackle counterfeit goods and piracy to protect the health and safety of our citizens, yet it is estimated that only a small fraction of cargo is inspected and even smaller fraction of illegal goods are detected. Today, the most widely used technology for scanning vehicles, ranging from vans and trucks to railcars, is gamma-ray and X-ray radiography. But new technologies are required for overcoming current technological shortcomings like inability to detect the materials, usage of radioactive and harmful sources, low throughput, just to name some.

Cosmic-ray tomography (CRT) is considered as beyond the state-of-the-art technology in cargo screening. Cosmic-ray muons are highly penetrating and constitute a completely natural form of radiation, being constantly and abundantly produced in the upper part of the Earth’s atmosphere. They are suitable to identify materials hidden inside of shielded containers, too thick or deep for other non-destructive imaging methods. The CRT is a completely passive technique, exploiting naturally occurring secondary cosmic radiation. Contrary to conventional X-ray or gamma-based imaging techniques it allows to distinguish between different materials and localizes them inside the cargo or vehicle by providing visualised 3D image and illustrated in the figure.

This project will bridge the major security gap for fast and safe inspection of a large number of cargos by developing a Multi-Functional Passive Detection System. Key for success will be the development of high-accuracy sensors for particle tracking, together with beyond state-of-the-art tomographic reconstruction and material classification algorithms.

The main role of UCLouvain in the project is to develop a fast and flexible simulation framework for muon tomography in synergy with the rest of the CP3-muography team and other teams belonging to SilentBorder, and to apply such framework for the optimization of the design of muon tomography scanners. This team builds upon a long expertise accumulated during several years in fundamental research including crucial contributions to CERN experiments. UCLouvain will exploit the software, which will be made open source, for other studies or R&D beyond this action, such as medical applications or volcanology.

The UCLouvain muography team members:

· Andrea Giammanco (FNRS permanent researcher)

· Eduardo Cortina (Professor)

· Pavel Denim (Research Scientist)

· Antoine Deblaere (Electronician)

· Raveendrababu Karnam (postdoctoral fellow)

· Ishan Darshana Gamage Ran Muthugalalage (PhD student)

· Samip Basnet (PhD student)

· Marwa Moussawi (PhD student)

· Ahmet Ilker Topuz (PhD student in co-supervision with Tartu University, Estonia)

The first doctoral position to join the SilentBorder project is already open at UCLouvain:


Andrea Giammanco

Centre for Cosmology, Particle Physics and Phenomenology (CP3, IRMP)

Images :

Top left: Schematic illustration of a cosmic ray shower, where the primary particle is a high energy cosmic ray that interacts with molecules in the upper part of the Earth atmosphere. The collision produces several secondary particles that further interact with the atmosphere molecules or decay, producing a cascade of subatomic particles propagating towards the Earth ground, among which there are muons. Top right: Composition of the SilentBorder H2020 RIA consortium. Bottom left: A cosmic-ray muon crossing the CMS detector at the Large Hadron Collider, CERN, where researchers of the CP3 center of IRMP, including the PI of the UCLouvain team in SilentBorder, perform fundamental research since several years. Bottom right: Schematic representation of the equipment and installation for cargo inspection, illustrating particle detectors crossed by cosmic-ray muons, similarly to the case of CERN experiments.

Credits: Cosmic-ray cascade from; Consortium Map from Funding & Tender Portal, European Commission; CMS Collaboration; Cargo inspection from L. Bonechi, R. D’Alessandro and A. Giammanco, Reviews In Physics Vol 5, 2020, 100038.

Published on May 20, 2021