Israeli nanotech sensor "smell" hidden bombs better than sniffer dogs: researcher

14:13, November 04, 2010      

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Tel Aviv University (TAU) researchers say they've come up with a pinhead-sized detector that may have been able to thwart the recent spate of mail bombs sent to diplomatic and Jewish addresses in at least three continents, and may potentially revolutionize future airport security.

Fernando Patolsky of TAU's Sackler School of Chemistry and his team set out earlier this year to challenge the drawbacks of existing explosive material detection methods: costly, cumbersome and lengthy laboratory analysis.

He said their prototype nanotechnology-based sensor can accurately spot and identify an alphabet soup of explosives, including PETN (the plastic explosive used in the FedEx bombing plot against Chicago synagogues last weekend), TNT, RDX, TATP, C4 and HMDX. It is also slated to be able to detect biological toxins such as anthrax, cholera or botulism.

The device is currently undergoing comprehensive lab tests, Patolsky told Xinhua on Wednesday.

"Many of these (bomb) materials are military-grade, but are easily obtained by terrorist organizations, which require very small quantities to cause big damage," said Patolsky, an applicable chemistry expert who spent several years at Harvard University.

Patolsky, citing the limitations of existing methods, said his privately-financed research will enable the development of a portable device featuring greater sensitivity, speed and reliability at detecting explosives than bomb-sniffer dogs.

"The lab results have shown unbeatable detection capabilities, not even by a dog," Patolsky said.

"We focused the research on developing the ability to detect substances in low concentrations," he said, citing terrorists' considerable and increasingly clever efforts to conceal bombs in unlikely everyday objects, in order to minimize the amount of identifying molecules a bomb emits that enable detection.

Patolsky's team first coated microscopic silicon wires with a compound that binds to explosives. From there they used the wires to build a sensitive nano-sized transistor-on-a-chip containing 200 individual sensors, which Patolsky claimed enable quick and reliable detection of explosives or other suspect agents.

And the sensor can work at a distance, Patolsky said, eliminating the need to bring it into contact with the item or person being checked.

Once out of the lab, the sensor will have to undergo rigorous field testing at airports and other high-security venues, he said, estimating the technology will be ready for marketing within a year or two.

The development, published in the October issue of the prestigious Angewandte Chemie journal, has been generating interest of companies developing similar sensors, as well as security organizations worldwide.

Israel's security establishment will likely purchase the device once its passed the trials, Patolsky said, noting that American security entities are also curious about the technology.

News of the sensor come in the midst of an international wave of attempted and successful terror attacks, including a barely- thwarted al-Qaida mail bombing plot out of Yemen, and explosive envelopes sent to embassies in Athens and Europe.

Some 1,500 security professionals and government officials gathered earlier this week at Israel's first-ever homeland security conference hosted in Tel Aviv. Some came from as far away as Brazil, Chile, Panama, India, Nigeria and Thailand, alongside delegates from the United States and Britain.

A score of leading Israeli defense manufacturers exhibited their latest counter-terrorism and homeland security wares, and local experts laid out Israeli techniques and strategy for combating the modern-day plague.

Source: Xinhua


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