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How White’s science helps keep America safe

Barry McNamara
09/26/2011
Paul White '61, owner and president of Nova Scientific, Inc.
This fall, when representatives from Monmouth College spent some time on the phone catching up with Paul White ’61, it had been nearly 10 years to the day of an event that had a significant impact on his business, Nova Scientific, Inc.

White is owner and president of the Sturbridge, Mass.-based company, a leader in scientific detector development and technology, particularly highly innovative systems capable of detecting neutrons.

“We mainly do research for the U.S. Department of Defense and other federal agencies connected to homeland security or nuclear materials control,” said White. “Lots of materials emit gamma ray photons, including medical isotopes, but very few materials give off neutrons. Those that do are primarily bad actors, such as plutonium. You don’t want to be around those in most circumstances.”

He continued, “There are several groups that are directly concerned about monitoring nuclear materials presence and their movement. Those groups, such as the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, are all about preventing those materials from getting into terrorists’ hands. … Nova’s business is all about building a better mousetrap.”

Those mousetraps could take the form of security panels at airport checkpoints, he explained. They could be as small as handheld PDAs and as large as entire tunnels.

“When imports are scanned at a busy harbor like Long Beach, Calif., the federal inspectors cannot hold up the process for hours by carefully scanning materials for potential problems,” explained White. “As businessmen and scientists, we have to have a balance between the need to keep all hazardous materials away from the public and still permit commerce to function in a reasonable manner.”

Not only did 9/11 raise the awareness of terrorist activity, but it also helped bring Nova’s detection methods to light at a time when a reliable method was becoming difficult.

“A very good method of detection has been Helium-3 gas tubes,” said White. “But that material has run out, so there is a really big push to find new detection methods. The majority of the He-3 gas needed for such traditional detectors has been generated, until now, as a byproduct of tritium production for nuclear warheads. The irony is that, on one hand, the world is striving to become a less tense place by decommissioning and destroying nuclear warheads and, on the other hand, the very process itself causes the depletion of the world’s stockpile of He-3, which was the single best solution for neutron detection. This is a very niche business, with few people really knowing about this kind of technology.”

In addition to detecting the presence of neutrons, Nova also specializes in the use of neutron imaging as an alternative to X-rays for scientific research and development.

“When you think of X-rays, the areas that are dense appear appear more opaque than the areas that are less dense,” White explained. “But neutron imaging can be complimentary to X-rays in that it can go through 10 inches of steel and still see small cracks that might be present. We can see things with neutrons that we couldn’t see with X-rays.”

Currently, NOVA has a major campaign under way to be a leader in neutron imaging and detection, focusing on customized, high-resolution neutron radiographic imaging detectors and integrated systems for university, industrial and government laboratories, such as Oak Ridge.

White’s company conducts R&D on systems to enhance the detection of neutrons, X-ray and gamma ray photons, as well as ions and electrons. Combined with electron amplification and electronic readouts, these systems are being directed to such varied applications as energy-efficient fuel cell development and fundamental medical and scientific research, in addition to those involving homeland security.

One year ago, Monmouth College honored another physicist who graduated in the 1960s, Kennedy Reed. White’s MC experience was very similar to Reed’s, as both enrolled as chemistry majors but soon switched to physics. They also both enjoyed their liberal arts education, with White stating, “One of my favorite courses was History of Music. I’m a big fan of the liberal arts curriculum. I saw both my sons be restricted by their higher education engineering experiences and not able to see the breadth. When you get to college, you’re still learning what you want to do. The more breadth you have, the more opportunity you have to see different aspects. People will migrate to what they really like.”

Not only do students need to be prepared to make the kind of switch that Reed and White did from one discipline to another, but they also have to “learn how to learn,” as new information comes at them rapidly, perhaps more so in science than any other field.

White explained that nanotechnology involves “understanding smaller and smaller aspects. … When we first started Nova in 1993, 250-micron resolution for electronic chips was really state-of-the-art. Today, it’s down to sub-80 nanometers, which is roughly 3,000 times smaller in less than 20 years.”

In that field, he said, chip density has doubled every 18 months.

“A good example is the coming impact of nanotechnology that involves manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale. The opportunities there apply to medicine, coatings, electronics, etc.”

Prior to launching his own company, White was at Owens-Illinois for 20 years, including two years he spent obtaining his Ph.D at the University of Michigan. He spent the next 10 years at Galileo Electro-Optics, a leader in supplying night vision technology to companies that make those devices. He was vice president of product development and also was “general manager of about half the company.”

With more of a management role, White said he concerned himself with the company being “more effective in terms of making changes and improvements. … I had a new 42,000-square-foot building handed to me, without really knowing how to maximize performance. We brought in consultants to help us consider market volumes, pricing, and product offerings.”

When White left Galileo, he planned on taking a three-year sabbatical. He had barely had time to kick his feet up and relax before the next “big thing” arrived.

Just four months later, “there was a small window of opportunity to take technology that was not being adequately addressed and push it into fully supported development,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest business lesson the scientist learned at Galileo and Nova is that “you have to make sure you operate your business in a straightforward and common sense manner I have enjoyed the role of an entrepreneur. I love planning our strategy for how to get the next contract or do the research necessary to be successful.”

Being straightforward is a message he has now passed along to his son, who handles Nova’s day-to-day operations.

Recently, White spent some time with Chris Fasano, chair of MC’s physics department.

“I’m very impressed with the changes in Monmouth’s physical plant,” said White. “The out-of-the-box thinking of how to motivate students with the SOFIA (Summer Opportunities for Intellectual Activity) program and the concept of tying business with science are two great examples of how Monmouth is broadening the learning experience for young people.”