Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions

Promoting Personal Safety & National Security:
New nanomaterial detects and neutralizes explosives

May 09, 2011

Peroxide-Based Explosives

A test strip changes from blue to pale yellow or
colorless in the presence of peroxide-based
explosives like those favored by terrorists.
Credit: Allen Apblett

Summary

Scientists describe development and successful initial
tests of a spray-on material that both detects and
renders harmless the genre of terrorist explosives
responsible for government restrictions on liquids that
can be carried onboard airliners. They reported on
the new ink-like explosive detector/neutralizer at the
241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American
Chemical Society. “This stuff is going to be used
anywhere terrorist explosives are used, including
battlefields, airports, and subways,” said study leader
Allen Apblett, Ph.D. “It’s going to save lives.”

Explosives made from hydrogen peroxide are a high-profile concern in the battle against terrorist attacks. These explosives, are easy to make and difficult to detect. —Thwarted “shoe bomber” Richard Reid tried to one such explosive onboard a commercial airliner in 2001. Now, scientists describe a new spray-on material that both detects and renders harmless this genre of terrorist explosives. They reported this finding at the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), in Anaheim, California.

Here’s the study’s lead author Allen Apblett, Ph.D., of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma:

“Authorities are very concerned about a substance called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, sometimes used in suicide vests and improvised explosive devices that have taken a terrible toll among troops and civilians. However, current methods of detecting this explosive are ineffective, allowing the material to easily escape detection at airports and other locations.”

Apblett decided to develop a new material to help find these explosives, which might be hidden in clothing, food, and beverages.

“The material we developed is a type of ink made of tiny metallic oxide nanoparticles — so small that 50,000 of them could fit inside the diameter of a single human hair. The ink changes color, from dark blue to pale yellow or clear, in the presence of explosives. The color-change feature allows the material to work as a sensor for quickly detecting the presence of vapors produced by explosives. Soldiers or firefighters could wear the sensors as badges on their uniforms or use them as paper-based test strips. Airports, subways and other facilities could use the sensors as part of stationary monitoring devices. The sensors could even be engineered into jewelry and cell phones.”

The same color-changing material can also serve as an explosives neutralizer, rendering the material harmless, Apblett points out.

“In lab studies, we showed that we could add the material to TATP and to a similar substance and make them nonexplosive. This new material does a really good job of neutralizing terrorists’ explosives.”

Apblett and colleagues founded a company called Xplosafe to develop and market the material. They hope to see the explosive detecting ink used in airports in as little as a year.

“This stuff is going to be used anywhere terrorist explosives are used, including battlefields, airports, and subways. It’s going to save lives.”

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 Katie Cottingham. I’m Adam Dylewski at the American Chemical Society in Washington.

Allen Apblett, Ph.D.
Allen Apblett, Ph.D.,
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, Oklahoma