Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions

Promoting Personal Safety & National Security: Boosting the sensitivity of airport security screening

January 28, 2013

Airport screening
New research could make explosives
detection more sensitive.


Credit: Transportation Security Administration

Summary

Scientists are reporting a simple way to improve
the sensitivity of the test often used to detect
traces of explosives on the hands, carry-ons and
other possessions of passengers at airport
security screening stations. Their report appears
in ACS’ The Journal of Physical Chemistry C.

Today’s solution is a simple way to improve the sensitivity of the test often used to detect traces of explosives on the hands, carry-ons and other possessions of passengers at airport security screening stations. A group of scientists reported their innovation in ACS’ The Journal of Physical Chemistry C.

These tests for traces of explosives begin by rubbing a swab made from glass fiber, Teflon or cotton over the suspect material. Analysis of the swab in a detector — usually a device called an ion mobility spectrometer — alerts agents to any explosive residues on the swab material.

Here’s lead author Yehuda Zeiri, Ph.D., from Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel:

“Common explosives like TNT are solids with very low vapor pressure at room temperature, so the best way to detect them is to search for particulate traces that rub off on clothing and luggage. To help security agencies prevent attacks more successfully, we studied how explosive particles adhere to surfaces and how we could improve swabs to pick up even smaller amounts of explosives.”

Using an atomic force microscope to measure the adhesive forces between explosive particles and different self-assembled monolayers, the scientists concluded that swab fabrics could be improved to collect smaller amounts of explosives by peppering them with hydroxyl, phenyl and amine functional groups.

“We believe that such additions could enhance the binding between the swab and irregularly shaped explosive particles.”

Smart Chemists/Innovative Thinking

Smart chemists. Innovative thinking. That’s the key to solving global challenges of the 21st Century. Please check out more of our full-length podcasts on wide-ranging issues facing chemistry and science, such as promoting public health, developing new fuels and confronting climate change, at www.acs.org/GlobalChallenges Today’s podcast was written by Sam Lemonick. I’m Katie Cottingham at the American Chemical Society in Washington.

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Yehuda Zeiri, Ph.D.,
Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Israel