Nuclear engineers analyze a possible piece of Amelia Earhart's airplane

Last year, National Geographic aired a documentary about the search for Amelia Earhart's plane that hasn't been seen since she and her navigator disappeared over the Pacific ocean on July 2, 1937 during their flight around the world. Daniel Beck, who manages the Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Center (RSEC), caught the show that talked about a piece of an aluminum panel found in 1991 on the tiny Pacific island of Nikumaroro in the region where Earhart's plane is thought to have crashed. Beck realized that the nuclear technology in the Penn State facility could possibly shed new light on the hunk of metal. They expect to reveal their findings later this year. From Penn State News:

Neutron radiography involves using neutron beams from the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor. A sample is set in front of the neutron beam, and a digital imaging plate is placed behind the sample. The neutron beam passes through the sample into the imaging plate, and an image is recorded and digitally scanned.

"As the beam passes through, if it were uniform density, we wouldn't see anything," Beck said. "If there's paint or writing or a serial number, things that have been eroded so we can't see with the naked eye, we can detect those."

Neutrons can create a contrast with materials that contain carbon or hydrogen by either absorbing or scattering neutrons. 

"The other approach, neutron activation analysis, helps precisely identify the make-up of material," [Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Center director Kenan] Ünlü said. "This approach can determine the ingredients of a materials at parts-per-million or parts-per-billion level sensitivity."

The patch appears to have axe marks along the edges, according to Beck, except for one edge where the metal was repeatedly flexed until it snapped from whatever it was attached to.  

"It doesn't appear that this patch popped off on its own," Beck said. "If it was chopped with an axe, we should see peaks for iron or nickel left by the axe along that edge. Neutron activation analysis gives us that detail at a very fine resolution." […]

"What the Penn State team is learning about this artifact is beyond anything we've been able to do in 29 years of research," [International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) leader Richard] Gillespie said. "It's possible we'll learn something that actually disqualifies this artifact from being part of Earhart's plane, but I prefer the knowing! It is so exciting to work with scientists who share our passion for getting to the truth, whatever it is."

"Investigating Amelia Earhart's disappearance mystery with neutrons" by Ashley J. WennersHerron (Penn State News)

image: Kenan Ünlü/Penn State