A New Way of Detecting Landmines

A U.S. Army engineer removes the fuse from a Russian-made mine to clear a minefield outside of Fallujah, Iraq.
A U.S. Army engineer removes the fuse
from a Russian-made mine to clear
a minefield outside of Fallujah, Iraq.
Credit: U.S. Army photo by
Spc. Derek Gaines/Wikipedia

It is estimated that 110 million active landmines remain across the world and that 25,000 people are crippled or killed every year by these devices. To find and disarm landmines, demining experts use either dogs, which can sniff very low levels of explosives—down to 1 part per quadrillion (1015) liters (of air), or 10–15 liters—or metal detectors, which can find not only landmines but also other pieces of metal.

Scientists at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, Conn., have developed an alternative to dogs and metal detectors that promises to be less costly and could be as reliable. The researchers have created a device that uses a nanofiber film and an ultraviolet light source that can detect explosive vapors in concentrations of 10 parts per billion (10–9) liters of air.

The film, which is spread over the soil, contains nanofibers that detect chemical vapors from landmines. If there are no explosive vapors, the film has a bright fluorescent color under ultraviolet light. If there are vapors, the areas where the vapors react with the film show up as dark spots under ultraviolet light.

A dog can detect explosive levels as low as one part per quadrillion (10–12) liters of air. The nanofiber can detect vapors at levels as low as one part per hundred million (10–8) liters.

If we compare the two:

  • Dogs: 10–12
  • Nanofibers: 10–8

In the end, dogs are still more sensitive, but they tire and are expensive. So, the nanofiber is a significant advancement in landmine detection. Scientists expect that with more research, the detection levels will improve and may one day reach the sensitivity of a dog’s nose.

—Roberta Baxter

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