Breakthrough: Universal detection system

Published 1 July 2008

Livermore researchers work on developing a universal detection system — a system that can monitor the air for virtually all of the major threat agents that could be used by terrorists: biological, chemical, explosives, and radiological — along with illicit drugs

OK, so this is not quite the unified theory Albert Einstein had in mind (in physics, a unified field theory is a type of field theory that allows all of the fundamental forces between elementary particles to be written in terms of a single field. Einstein, who coined the term, tried to unify the general theory of relativity with electromagnetism). Still, this is as close as we can get to a unified theory of detection. Security and law enforcement officials may some day have a new ally — a universal detection system that can monitor the air for virtually all of the major threat agents that could be used by terrorists. This type of system is under development by a team of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists and engineers, and has already been tested in laboratory and field experiments. In their latest advance, the team has conceptually shown that they can almost simultaneously detect four potential threat materials — biological, chemical, explosives, and radiological — along with illicit drugs. Their work, using a system called Single-Particle Aerosol Mass Spectrometry, or SPAMS, is described in the 15 June edition of Analytical Chemistry, a semi-monthly journal published by the American Chemical Society.

We believe SPAMS is the only detection instrument that can autonomously detect multiple types of threat agents and trigger alarms within less than a minute,” said Matthias Frank, an LLNL physicist and one of the paper’s co-authors. “What sets this work apart,” Frank explained, “is that we did our experiments with all these types of threat agents within minutes of each other without reconfiguring the SPAMS instrument” (in some cases, surrogate materials were used). Last spring, the researchers announced that their instrument could perform as a three-in-one detection machine, monitoring the air for biological, chemical and explosive agents. Since then, the Livermore team has added the capabilities of detecting illicit drugs and powders from radioactive metals. They developed the software capability to assist in detecting metal powders and the algorithms to help detect all four threat agents at one time. The paper’s lead author, LLNL physicist Paul Steele, notes that three factors are particularly important in developing a detection machine like SPAMS: sensitivity, false alarm rate and response time. “What we have accomplished,” Steele said, “is to make an instrument that is very sensitive, with a very low false alarm rate, but very fast. That’s unique. Other systems that are