As science races to confront terrorism with new technology, researchers are unveiling a new generation of devices featuring ever-more sophisticated sensors to quickly detect explosives, radiation, chemicals and biological agents.
Most share the promise of doing more with far less bulk, suggesting a future in which radiation from a dirty bomb is detected by a commuter’s iPhone, a laptop warns of explosives more than a football field’s length away, a hand-held unit spots airborne anthrax spores within seconds and a device no bigger than a matchbox sniffs out a tiny release of hazardous chemicals.
“We’d all like to have the tricorder on ‘Star Trek’ where you point it at something and it says, ‘Oh, it’s this,’” said Larry Senesac, a physicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. If science isn’t quite ready to “boldly go where no man has gone before,” he agrees that researchers have made huge strides from the days of relatively immobile sensors. And as the devices have shrunk in size, costs have dropped as well.
For detecting explosives, “you’d like to screen people, you’d like to screen their luggage, you’d like to screen packages and ship containers,” Senesac said. “You’d also like to detect these improvised explosive devices that have been showing up all over, but particularly in Iraq.”
Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s new technology, known as standoff photoacoustic spectroscopy, allows people to literally stand off at a distance and detect hazards, suggesting a not-too-distant scenario “where vehicles could drive down the street at a reasonable speed and screen for these explosives,” Senesac said. In a lab setting, he and colleagues detected residue from TNT and two other types of explosives more than 20 yards away — “not just explosives, but we can tell which explosives they are.”