Next-Generation Explosives Trace Detection Technology

Many of us may have experienced being swabbed at airport checkpoints in a procedure called alarm resolution screening. TSOs use ETDs to determine whether harmful substances are present on cargo or the passengers transporting it—they use a sampling coupon to swab a piece of carry-on or checked baggage or a passenger’s hands, place the coupon inside an ETD unit, and then analyze it for the presence of potential explosive residues.

Palamar continued, “We were surprised and pleased to find out that this same technology is equally adaptable for enhancing warfighters’ capabilities to detect biological and WMD threats.”

DARPA’s SIGMA+ program is tasked with detecting illicit materials via highly-capable sensors and networks that alert authorities to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives threats. They were looking to deploy chemical sensors that not only will provide early warning of WMDs, but that could also be scalable to cover a major metropolitan city and its surrounding region. A high-resolution and high-sensitivity mass spec technology that has been ruggedized for field operations was a logical choice for the SIGMA+ program.

S&T’s years of taking ETD technology to the next level resulted in the Next-Gen Mass Spec ETD that will help DARPA meet its capability need. Key features of S&T’s system include:

·  Enhanced capabilities to counter emergent threats. This technology is designed to meet the most demanding requirements for explosive threat detection, including detection of homemade explosives.

·  Upgradable threat library and shortened threat library upgrade cycles. The high spectral resolving power and sensitivity of industry partner Bruker Detection Corporation’s triple-quadrupole mass spec technology play a key role in allowing faster threat identification and confirmation of specific threats.

·  Adaptable to operations in challenging environments, such as adverse weather and high vibration environments.

The technology underwent two rounds of developmental testing and evaluation at S&T’s Transportation Security Laboratory and one round of testing at TSA’s Systems Integration Facility. It is also undergoing ruggedization for uses in air cargo facilities. In each of these testing and evaluation events, the technology showed proven capabilities in detecting and identifying emergent explosive threats.

Allowing DARPA to Communicate WMD Threats in Domestic Urban Environments
Now, with some modification, this critical, cutting-edge technology has been reconfigured for DARPA to use as an air-breathing sensor for early WMD warning.

DARPA’s SIGMA+ program has a requirement to deploy highly-capable chemical sensors as part of a mobile sensor architecture to provide WMD early warning,” noted DARPA Program Manager Dr. Mark Wrobel. “S&T’s development of an air-sampling variant of Bruker’s compact triple-quadrupole mass spectrometer has provided a capability for SIGMA+ that would otherwise not have existed.”

Leveraging S&T’s Next-Gen Mass Spec ETD engine, DARPA integrates it with an air-breathing front end for sampling air and detecting chemical and explosive trace vapors and their pre-cursors in metropolitan environments. The high sensitivity of the detection engine is instrumental in giving DARPA a real-time detection capability against WMD, and the upgradable threat library and compressed library upgrade cycles play a key role in enabling the communications of WMD threats to responsible authorities—thus enhancing national security.

Thoi Nguyen, a contract scientist supporting S&T’s development and analysis of the Next-Gen Mass Spec ETD for the last five years, seconded Dr. Wrobel’s comment. “S&T tested and evaluated several other mass spec technologies for explosives detection. This technology came out on top both in high- probability of detection and low probability of false alarm.”

The Power of Collaboration
S&T’s work on Next-Gen Mass Spec ETD technology continues with TSA and other DHS agencies, “but it is always a proud moment when a new use case is not only identified but put into operational practice,” S&T says.

Commenting on this fruitful collaboration, S&T’s Dr. Laura Parker said: “It is a credit to the progress and impact of this next-generation ETD technology that S&T was able to collaborate with DARPA and share this technology. As government program managers, we are committed to using taxpayers’ money more efficiently, and this technology transition is a win-win.”