Laser-based Bomb Detection Technology Developed, Said to Be 10x Better

By English: Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By English: Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

UC Berkeley researchers have developed plasmon laser sensors for the detection of bombs. These tiny laser sensors are expected to supplement if not replace traditional bomb-sniffing dogs. For decades, canines have been the go-to solution when it comes to detecting and finding bombs. With the unending threats of bombing or terrorism in crowded places, this new bomb detection technology is doubtlessly a welcome development.

Laser Based Technology

This new bomb detection technology has been developed under the leadership of UC Berkeley mechanical engineering professor Xiang Zhang. It is centered on enhancing the sensitivity of light-based plasmon sensor, which in turn increases the ability to detect minute concentrations of explosives. The researchers said that this new technology can sniff out difficult-to-detect explosives often used by terrorists. Their claim is that this new tech is ten times more powerful than current bomb detection technology.

Testing the New Tech

To determine the effectiveness of the new sensor, the researchers tested it with various types of explosives including 2,4-dinitrotoluene (DNT), ammonium nitrate, and nitrobenzene. They found that with the new tech, it is possible to detect airborne explosive chemicals at very small concentrations. With DNT, concentrations as low as 0.67 parts per billion were detected. With ammonium nitrate and nitrobenzene, up to 0.4 parts per billion and 7.2 parts per million, respectively, were successfully detected.

To give you an idea of how small these amounts are, 1 part per billion is like one blade of grass in a soccer field. It’s like the proverbial finding a needle in a haystack—a very wide haystack. This basically means that the technology enables detection of explosive residue by simply examining the air or certain surfaces where explosives may have left some traces.

The numbers produced by the tests conducted by the UC Berkeley researchers are considerably better than those of other optical sensor based bomb detection devices. According to Professor Zhang, “The ability to magnify such a small trace of an explosive to create a detectable signal is a major development in plasmonsensor technology, which is one of the most powerful tools we have today.”

By U.S. Department Homeland Security (Tranportation Security Administration blog) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Department Homeland Security (Tranportation Security Administration blog) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Advantages Over Current Bomb Detection Tech

Aside from the dramatically higher sensitivity, this new laser-based bomb sniffing technology also offers a host of other advantages. When compared to bomb-sniffing dogs, the new tech offers the convenience of not necessitating any kind of training. There’s no animal to feed, maintain, and care for. Overall, it tends to be the less expensive option.

When compared to systems that involve swab sampling to inspect explosive residue, this new laser-based tech provides the convenience of not requiring any contact. It does not need to be very close to the subject being tested. It will be possible with the help of powerful computers to inspect people as they walk through entry points or luggage as they go through the regular inspection (in an airport for example), without requiring them to stop to do the checking.

Another advantage of this technology is that the nanoscale plasmon sensor being used is significantly smaller than those of other explosive detection devices. As such, it can be used on smaller or less conspicuous devices to be used in tracing explosives without alarming people in crowded areas.

Using the Technology

There is no commercially available device that makes use of this new bomb detection technology yet. However, it can be inferred that this highly sensitive bomb detection tech will be used as a small portable device that can be quickly aimed at something to test for possible traces of explosives. This type of device can be very useful at airports and other crowded places. It can also be a quick tool for responding bomb squads in cases of bombing threats. Moreover, the technology can be developed to facilitate the detection of landmines, including those that had been set up a long time ago, during the major global wars.

By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Chris Otsen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Chris Otsen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Detecting PETN

The researchers are hoping that this new technology can be able to finally provide a portable and easy-to-use means for detecting the hard-to-detect pentaerythritol tetranitrate or PETN. This material is a favorite for terrorists because of its highly explosive quality. A small amount of the PETN powder is powerful enough to cause considerable damage to life and property. Also, because PETN is essentially plastic, it easily escapes x-ray detection when not connected to detonators.

This new laser-based bomb detection technology will definitely be a boon in the fight against terrorism. It should be developed into a commercially available device soon. Governments should be spending for something like this tech instead of allocating government money on expensive Stingrays to be used in tracking or spying on ordinary citizens.