Ralph James has surpassed Derek Jeter. Working with a team of scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory, James, a prolific scientific innovator, has now won the prestigious R and D 100 Award, described as the “Oscars of Invention,” six times, topping the retiring Yankee shortstop’s five World Series rings.
James, who is a senior scientist and group leader in the Nonproliferation and National Security Department at BNL, has led a group that has developed and improved a wide range of technologies that have applications in everything from detecting signature radiation from weapons to finding more efficient ways to detect tumors inside the human body.
The R and D 100 Awards have been given out annually by R and D magazine since the 1960s and include inventions like the halogen lamp and HDTV. James credited colleagues, including Aleksey Bolotnikov, with collaborating to produce the latest award.
BNL and James’ department have benefited from the scientist’s awards and from his vision for a department that has been able to recruit talented scientists.
“James creates conditions where we can attract the best people from all over the world,” said Bolotnikov, who is originally from Russia and who has colleagues from China and India. “All these awards convince our sponsors that we propose good ideas.”
Bolotnikov called James “visionary,” “an expert manager” and a “supporter of good ideas.” Bolotnikov, who shared in three of the R and D 100 awards, said he is “glad [James] directed me in the right direction.”
The latest award involves improving the performance of detectors produced from lower-quality and cheaper crystals, making them more effective at looking for the signature of a particular kind of radiation.
James helped develop cadmium zinc telluride, or CZT, crystals, which enable scientists, medical researchers, and homeland security experts to collect information about a radiation source at room temperature.
Prior to the creation of CZT, scientists used germanium to detect radiation. The biggest problem with germanium, which is, as James said, “the most pure material that exists today,” is that it had to be cooled to minus 200 degrees Celsius or minus 328 degrees Fahrenheit. These germanium detectors, which are still used in some places today, needed several hours to cool down and required considerable maintenance.
The discovery of CZT, however, enabled technicians to get specific isotope information at room temperature. Isotopes are variations of the same element with different number of neutrons. Uranium, for example, has several isotopes, including the more common Uranium 238. The lighter U 235, which occurs in natural uranium but at a very low concentration, however, can be used in nuclear reactions when it is enriched and is an isotope officials from Homeland Security, among other organizations, monitor closely.