Nanotech Breakthrough Promises Super-Accurate Handheld Bomb Detectors

This discovery has a chance (as small as it may be) to reduce the amount of time we all spend in TSA lines.

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Jul 21 2014, 10:33pm
Image: Wikimedia Commons

At least every other day, there's a new breakthrough in nanotechnology that promises to harness the tiny, uber-complex tech to improve the world as we know it. Mostly because this latest one has a chance, as small as it may be, to reduce the amount of time we all spend in TSA lines, I'm going to help publicize it.

It's an improvement in detecting explosives—even the clandestine, plastic kind favored by terrorists like the underwear bomber—that will allow the manufacture of handheld, exceedingly accurate sensors that can pick a bomb out of a crowded room like a single blade of grass out of a football field. 

The UC Berkeley researchers, who published their work in Nature Nanotechnologyhave found a way to "dramatically increase the sensitivity of a light-based plasmon sensor to detect incredibly minute concentrations of explosives," according to the university's release. "The engineers put the sensor to the test with various explosives—2,4-dinitrotoluene (DNT), ammonium nitrate and nitrobenzene—and found that the device successfully detected the airborne chemicals at concentrations of 0.67 parts per billion, 0.4 parts per billion and 7.2 parts per million, respectively. One part per billion would be akin to a blade of grass on a football field.

The plasmon laser sensor consists of a thin slab of semiconductor separated from the metal surface by a dielectric gap layer. Surface defects on the semiconductor interact with molecules of the explosive DNT.  (Image by Ren-Min Ma and Sadao Ota)

As a result, the scientists imagine their sensor will be an apt replacement for bomb-sniffing dogs and those weird swabbings TSA agents sometimes subject you to before you have to take your shoes and belt off.

“Bomb-sniffing dogs are expensive to train, and they can become tired,” said the study's co-lead author Ren-Min Ma, an assistant professor of physics at Peking University, in a statement. “The other thing we see at airports is the use of swabs to check for explosive residue, but those have relatively low-sensitivity and require physical contact. Our technology could lead to a bomb-detecting chip for a handheld device that can detect the tiny-trace vapor in the air of the explosive’s small molecules.” 

Nano-detection, in a single chip, on a handheld device—that is surely the future of bomb detection. Or at least I hope it is, because that swabbing always leaves a residue of big brother on my fingertips, and I have trouble restraining myself from petting those nice-looking bomb dogs.