For Vladimir Mozin, the 2008 launch of the UC Laboratory Fees Research Program couldn’t have happened at a better time. A graduate student in nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley, his research focused on detecting radioactive fissile material — whether in spent nuclear fuel assemblies or sequestered in a ship cargo container.

The program allowed him to work with nuclear engineers at Berkeley, and for the last two years of his graduate studies, at Los Alamos National Laboratory to refine new detection strategies.

He completed his graduate work with support of the program and parlayed his expertise into a permanent position as a staff researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Now, he's been asked to review applications from graduate students for new rounds of research grants in the lab fees program.

“Vladimir’s experience really highlights the value of the program,” said Jasmina Vujic, professor of nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley and director of the UC Berkeley Nuclear Research Center, which was established with support from the UC Lab Fees Research Grant program.

Detection is difficult, Mozin said, because relatively weak signals from gamma rays and neutrons can be screened or masked.

“We need instruments that are able to detect weak signals, but ideally, without interrupting or physically interfering with commercial operations," he said.

He worked on methods for non-intrusive investigations of “targets of interest” The target is irradiated by beams of neutrons or photons that induce fissions in fissile materials. The material then emits characteristic signals that can be picked up by specially developed systems.

Some unlikely radiation sources could interfere with detection of contraband material, Mozin says. “Without very sensitive measurements, we could miss a suspect source of nuclear material packed in a crate of bananas — or even kitty litter. Both emit low levels of gamma radiation.”

The first round of UC lab fees grants helped scientists track other vital resources that can hide in plain site, including one of planet’s most valuable commodities: water.

To a large degree, winter snows hold the fate of the multi-billion-dollar California agriculture industry, as well as the water supply for rivers and cities downstream. But accurately measuring the volume of the winter snowpack and the likely timing of its release continues to frustrate water engineers and resource planners.

Soroosh Sorooshian, director of UC Irvine’s Center for Hyrdometeorology and Remote Sensing, and his colleagues Xiagang Gao and Wei Chu work with state water agencies, NASA and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to squeeze more accurate snowpack measurements and information out of images from satellites.

One of their former graduate students, Qing Xia, recently earned his doctorate in civil and environmental engineering for UC Lab Fees-funded research, essentially helping engineers fill in some of the blanks in satellite images caused by cloud cover and other atmospheric conditions.

Xia’s computations yield much more accurate assessments of the boundaries of snowpack and their variation rates, improving estimates of the winter’s snow volume, and so, spring’s water supply.

“The UC Lab Fees Research Grants supported a real grassroots collaboration,” Sorooshian said. “We offered our understanding of hydrology, climate effects and water resource issues, and our LLNL colleagues shared their very strong capacity for computation and analysis.

“The interactions and input provided by the technical staff of the California Department of Water Resources was invaluable and ensured that the outcome of the work will be relevant to practical state water resources issues. This was a truly joint activity. I give it high marks for that.”

See: UC and national labs tackle pressing safety issues with innovative research