ACRO develops a pen-like TATP detector

Published 17 November 2006

As an increasing number of companies develop portable, self-contained laboratories, ARCO jumps ahead to fight a common terrorist explosive; technology uses enzyme-catalyzed oxidation to produce colored pigments; low cost per unit a huge attraction for pen devices

One of these days, soldiers will carry a pencil box in their rucksacks, perhaps covered in Hebew writing. Elsewhere in today’s issue we report on the BioPen, a field bioagent detector under development at Ben Gurion University in the Negev. Researchers there are not the only Israelis to think a pen-like device is a good detection platform. Professor Ehud Keinan of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and founder of ACRO Security Technologies, has developed a portable method of identifying the explosive TATP (triacetone triperoxide) and other peroxide-based explosive compounds.

TATP, readers may recall, is one of the most common explosives used by terrorists because it can be manufactured cheaply from off-the-shelf ingredients — the exact plan, in fact, of this summer’s London liquid bombers, as well as shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Discovered in 1895 by German scientist Richard Wolffenstein, it is 83 percent as powerful as an equivalent amount of TNT. TATP is, however, extremely unstable, which is why it has not been adopted by militaries or (legitimate) demolition companies. Even terrorists call it “the mother of Satan.”

Due to TATP’s inherent instability, numerous explosives removal personnel have been injured over the years when trying to handle it, often because they could not identify it beforehand (it often appears as a white, sugary substance). The problem is partucularly acute in airports, where neither X-ray machines, explosives trace detectors, or dogs can accurately identify it. Furthermore, because it requires no detonator, there are no electrical wires to give the device away to a metal detector. To date, detection of TATP has been limited to such time-consuming biophysical techniques such as IR/Raman spectroscopy and mass spectrometry.

Professor Keinman’s device, the ACRO-PET (Peroxide Explosives Tester) is based on enzyme-catalyzed oxidation of organic substrates by hydrogen peroxide to produce colored pigments. Slightly larger than a test tube and resembling a 3-ink pen, the ACRO-PET comes equipped with a silicone cap to collect a sample of a suspected material and a simple color indicator for the presence of TATP in the inspected sample. Like the BioPen, it is expected to eventually cost in the tens of dollars per unit. Target markets include transportation sercurity agencies, border crossing checkpoints, bomb squads, and first intervention forces.

-read more in this The Future of Things report