New, portable device capable of detecting pictogram-level traces of agents, explosives

Published 16 December 2005

The emphasis TSA has placed on airport explosives detection spurs scientific and technological innovation which promises better security

We have noted in several stories these past two weeks that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has shifted focus and is now giving priority attention to screening airline passengers for explosives. The nation’s scientists pay attention to the issue, too. Chemists at Purdue University have come up with a fast, portable, reliable way to detect residues which could indicate the presence of explosives and other hazardous materials inside luggage. The portable mass spectrometer can determine the presence of trace quantities of chemicals — such as those found in biological and chemical warfare agents, as well as several common explosives — on a surface within a few seconds.

The method uses a tool common in many chemistry and biology labs called a mass spectrometer that has been modified to analyze samples directly from the environment rather than requiring the lengthy pre-treatment that laboratory mass spectrometry samples typically require. “No portable device is currently on the market that can analyze samples in this manner,” says Graham Cooks, a professor of chemistry in Purdue’s College of Science.

Cooks’ team had previously developed a prototype device that detects nanogram-sized samples, but with recent improvements the device has successfully detected the picogram (trillionths of a gram) level in lab tests, about 1,000 times less material than previously required. Cooks is confident that a portable tool based on the technology would be valuable for security in public places worldwide. “In the amount of time it requires to take a breath, this technology can sniff the surface of a piece of luggage and determine whether a hazardous substance is likely to be inside, based on residual chemicals brushed from the hand of someone loading the suitcase,” he said.

-read more in this Purdue news release

Cooks’s team with the new detection tool