C-BORD: Cargo control can be faster and more effective

Gdańsk - port kontenerowy (foto: NCBJ)

Mission of the European C-BORD project, finalised in November 2018, was to develop and test a complex, affordable solution for inspecting containers and large cargo on EU borders, especially in sea ports. This project assumes for C-BORD system to work in a large scope of non-intrusive container control (Non-Intrusive Inspection, NII), to be able to detect illegal drugs, tobacco, explosive materials, chemical warfare agents, trafficking in human beings and Special Nuclear Materials (SNM). The project involved five control methods: RTG. scanner, radiometric gates, neutron system, photofission system and fume analyser. The venture was funded under the framework of European programme for research and innovation Horizon 2020. 18 partners from 7 EU countries were involved in the project, including Polish NCBJ and the National Revenue Administration. The participants of the project were scientists, European companies and final users (customs service).

Modern science is able to provide controlling services with various methods on non-intrusive cargo inspection based in many different physical and chemical phenomena. An ambition of C-BORD project executors was to show, that five of the already available methods can be integrated in a system working with two inspection lines and operated from one decisive centre. Such integration would tighten the control system without making the inspections more cumbersome for shippers and without needlessly blocking the flow of goods. The tested system would be applicable primarily to inspect containers in sea ports and land crossings.

According to authors of the projects the first line of inspection could be industrial RTG. scanner, gates monitoring radiation and system for chemical analysis of fumes from inside the container. The first two of those systems are currently the most technologically refined and are available in commercial versions.

Industrial scanner screens the container with X-rays, making an image of its inside with the precision up to a fraction of a millimetre. This way, an experienced customs officer can analyse the contents of the container, especially identify suspicious cargo, which differ from typical characteristics of products mentioned in customs declaration, creating so called anomalies. Moreover, the radiometric gates system allows to detect traces of radiation characteristic to some materials containing radioactive materials. There are some potentially dangerous natural as well as synthetic materials, that emit specific gamma radiation, which – after energy analysis – can be identified even when the intensity is very low, or the radiation is attenuated by potential shielding. The shielding alone would be very well visible on the X-ray image taken on this line.

Another solution proposed for implementation in the first inspection line is a system for chemical analysis, which allows to analyse composition of air inside the container. This system is often called electronic dog, or sniffer. As a result of nearly real-time chemical analysis it is possible to detect even trace amounts of volatile substances that are characteristic for typically smuggled materials, like intoxicating or explosive agents. Here it is important to compare the results of inspection with information contained in cargo’s customs declaration.

The team working on the C-BORD project assumed, that the measurement on the first inspection line would be analysed „on the fly” by qualified customs officers. In an event of detecting suspicious traits, cargo would be directed to second, more technologically advanced line of non-intrusive control. This is a fundamental difference in comparison with current methods of inspection, wherein suspicious results of the control result in directing the cargo to time-consuming, costly for the shipper and, in many cases, troublesome direct inspection, that consists in opening the container and inspecting the cargo by a crew of customs officers.

Second line of inspection would be – according to the project proposal – two systems of analysing the cargo with the use of neutrons and high energy photon beam.

The neutron activation system combines the phenomenon of non-elastic neutron scattering with related time-of-flight spectroscopy. Technology allows for achieving effective and precise system of detection and identification of explosive materials or smuggled drugs, for example. Neutrons with energy of 14 MeV are emitted isotopically from a tubular generator. The signal from atomic nuclei of the analysed cargo, that were excited by the neutrons is registered by a system of detectors and analysed. The analysis allows to determine relative amount of nitrogen, carbon and oxygen with good precision, and in turn, the most possible material (explosive, intoxicant, „harmless” material), in the activated part of the container, pointed at during the x-ray inspection beforehand.

Fifth system utilises the phenomenon of nuclear photofission induced by photons of energy up to 9 MeV and is dedicated to detection of smuggled Special Nuclear Materials (SNM). A beam of high-energy gamma photons is obtained using linear electron accelerator. Electrons, after slowing down in a heavy target, emit photons which can induce when colliding nuclei of certain isotopes, especially uranium and plutonium, which are of potential importance for terrorist activities. Under the framework of the project there were conducted tests of four devices for detection of nuclear materials. One of them is a special system of detectors (designed in NCBJ) that searches for a characteristic signal coming from both neutrons and gamma radiation. On this basis it is able to ascertain, in a short time (20 minutes) and in a safe and non-invasive way, whether suspicions related to the nature of cargo assumed on the first inspection line were justified.

C-BORD project, finalised in November 2018, demonstrated, that from the technical standpoint, it is possible to build and integrate a multi-component inspection system. The tests were conducted both in a road control point in Hungary, and in container ports in Gdańsk and Rotterdam. They showed the effectiveness of the constructed system as well as good performance of user-friendly software developed for this project.

Authors intend to seek funding for further development of this initiative up to the moment of bringing it to the stage of ready-to-use product offered to the interested services. During the times of common anxiety for public safety and plenty examples of real danger, introduction of such systems to everyday practice would be highly desired.

Gdańsk - container port (foto: NCBJ)
Gdańsk - container port (foto: NCBJ)