At Frontier Technology Corporation (FTC), we were contracted by a military/defense client to assist in the development of a Portable Isotopic Neutron Spectroscopy (PINS) system. Since its inception almost three decades ago, this incredible technology has helped to detect and destroy thousands of hazardous materials and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Here is what you need to know about PINS systems.

What Is Portable Isotopic Neutron Spectroscopy (PINS)?

In 1992, Dr. Gus Caffrey and his research and development team at the Idaho National Laboratory introduced the PINS system. It was the first of its kind—it could identify the hazardous materials within IEDs and chemical warfare devices through a non-destructive yet highly effective means. Its highly transportable design led to its deployment on the Mobile Munitions Assessment System; between the years of 1992 and 2012, PINS was used at over 63 U.S. sites.

Due to PINS systems’ ability to detect a wide variety of explosives, hazardous chemicals, nerve agents, and blister agents—including sarin gas and mustard gas—the implementation of the technology is rapidly growing among military personnel, customs agents, the National Guard, homeland security, and border protection agents. Since its inception, PINS has found use in over 50 domestic U.S. sites and 40 overseas sites, including a number of locations in Iraq. As they are able to provide information about hazardous materials without having to open a suspicious container or other target contents, PINS systems have saved many lives in numerous military and defense situations.

How Do PINS Systems Work?

How Do PINS Systems Work?

Military and defense personnel can use PINS systems on-site (i.e. in bulk analyzers), as their portability facilitates simple transport from one location on the field to the next. At its core, the technology works by penetrating a suspected container with neutrons, which produces a unique gamma ray signature. This signature detects and analyzes the combination of elements present and determines all contents within the container.

A typical PINS system setup consists of a californium-252 (Cf-252) neutron source, a gamma ray detector, high-purity germanium, a laptop computer, and a stand equipped with a moderator and shielding. The laptop computer serves as a control panel, analyzing the results provided by the PINS system and displaying the results to the operator.

While this detection technology is revolutionary, the process for acquiring information using the PINS system is relatively straightforward. Here is how it works:

  1. The PINS system saturates the suspected container with neutrons. The most frequently-utilized neutron source for current-day PINS systems is Cf-252.
  2. The process of bombarding the container with neutrons creates gamma rays. These small, powerful electromagnetic radiation waves indicate the unique signatures of the material inside the container.
  3. PINS software analyzes the gamma ray spectrum to determine the exact chemical composition and/or compounds inside the container.
  4. In a short amount of time—approximately 100 to 1,000 seconds, depending on depth of analysis—the software finishes the evaluation and displays the results to the system operator, who passes them on to relevant authorities.

In summary: PINS systems significantly reduce the risk of injury to emergency response personnel and public workers. As the technology allows for the identification of suspicious contents without necessitating the opening of the container, they are less likely to suffer from exposure to hazardous materials or explosives. The results of the system’s analysis can then be provided to the appropriate authorities, enabling everyone to proceed with greater awareness and knowledge of the situation.

What Can PINS Detect?

PINS systems are capable of successfully identifying a wide range of hazardous materials and dangerous devices. Some of these include:

  • Artillery projectilesbetween 75 and 175 mm
  • Rockets, including M-55 rockets and rockets inside S/F overpacks and tubes
  • Mortar projectiles with 3, 4, and 4.2 inch strokes
  • Bombs, including cluster bombs; “weteye” bombs; and MC-1, M-70, and M-79 bombs
  • Other (potentially) explosive devices, such as land mines, gas cylinders, projector shells, and DOT 500X ton containers

Since its introduction in October of 1992, the PINS system technology has led to the successful detection of over 13,000 chemical agent identification sets (CAIS) and the destruction of 73,174 items of chemical warfare.

Why Is Californium-252 Used in PINS?

Californium-252 (Cf-252) is one of the most commonly employed neutron sources for PINS systems, for several key reasons. Cf-252 is an ideal match for PINS system needs due to its:

  • Strong neutron production. A microgram of Cf-252 produces 139 million neutrons every minute; californium-252 is one of the strongest neutron emitters available for use.
  • Deep material penetration. Cf-252 deeply penetrates hazardous materials with its high volume of neutrons, making this neutron source an excellent choice for bulk analyzers and other PINS equipment.
  • Broad material analysis. Cf-252 measures and analyzes the unique gamma ray signatures of potentially hazardous containers, providing a significant amount of accurate information on the field.
  • Portability. Compared to alternative detection methods, using Cf-252 means more streamlined transportability. This is largely due to the fact that Cf-252 source containers are highly customizable, with configurations, shielding capacities, and sizes that can be altered depending on the need.

Cf-252 is also an excellent choice due to its durability. With the correct shielding, these neutron sources can withstand a spectrum of stressors and harsh environmental conditions that could occur during operations.

Work With FTC on Your Portable Isotopic Neutron Spectroscopy (PINS) System

At FTC, we proudly provide military and defense customers with our californium-252 neutron sources to support high quality PINS systems. For over two decades, we have provided the U.S. Army with PINS systems to help identify suspicious and hazardous materials in thousands of chemical munitions. We continuously make improvements to our PINS capabilities for even better performance, despite our 20+ years of work with these systems. Each and every one of our products is held to stringent standards and requirements, including INL, NSCMP, and CMADOE.

To learn more about portable isotopic neutron spectroscopy (PINS) or ask about our Cf-252 sources, contact us today.

Portable Isotopic Neutron Spectroscopy (PINS)
Product Description:Used to determine IED contents and reduce injuries.
Detects explosives and hazardous material.
Overall Dimensions:Standard Model 100 with Eyelet
Equipment Used:Internal Process
Standards Met: Customer Specifications
In Process-Testing/Inspection PerformedHigh-level Testing
Industry for UseMilitary/Defense
Applications: Homeland Security
National Guard
Customs & Border Protection
Airport Security Scanners
Industry Standards:NSCMP
Additional Facts:Gamma ray signature reveals the chemical element
Can determine the full compound from the combination of elements detected
Bulk analyzer
Items Assayed with PINS
Artillery Projectiles:75 to 175 mm
Mortar Projectiles:3 inch Stokes
4 inch Stokes
4.2 inch Stokes
Inside S/F Tubes and Overpacks
Cluster Bombs
Other:Land Mines
Livens Projector Shells
Gas Cylinders
DOT 500X ton Containers

Portable Isotopic Neutron Spectroscopy (PINS) Project Highlights

Research & Development

Dr. Gus Caffrey, of INL, leads the PINS development team
R&D-100 Award winner, 1992.
Product improvements to the current PINS system are in development.


The PINS is a transportable technology deployed on the Mobile Munitions Assessment System (MMAS).
Deployed to over 100 U.S. sites between 1992-2018.

Quick Facts

  • First-of-its-kind, field-proven, reliable and non-destructive evaluation technology developed to identify chemical-fill inside chemical warfare material.
  • Contributed to the success of over 13,000 CAIS, ton containers, and recovered chemical warfare material assessed since October 1992.
  • Contributed to the success of 73,174 chemical warfare items destroyed.
  • Provided assessment support to combat commanders through deployment to Iraq, Australia, and Japan.
  • Over 20 years continued support to the U.S. Army providing reliable information on the contents of thousands of suspect chemical munitions, ultimately creating a safer tomorrow.