The Pursuit of Next-Generation Explosives Detection

By Joseph Straw

An adversary who wants to die trying to carry out a mission is one of the defining elements of the asymmetrical environment in which today’s security professionals must protect society from terrorism. The trend is evidenced by failed suicide attacks such as that attempted on Christmas Day, when authorities say Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to kill 289 passengers and crew on a Detroit-bound airliner using a bomb concealed in his underwear.

Abdulmutallab’s attack failed due to its lack of sophistication and to the heroism of passengers and crew, but the threat is real and the next attempt may not be as amateurish. The incident highlights the importance of explosives detection technology that could help intercept the next attempt. Security Management looks at the evolving capabilities of such technologies, plus remaining limitations and concerns about privacy implications.
Emerging Technology
The threat of explosives, in particular those that might be directed at commercial aviation, has spurred research into new detection technologies as well as funding of efforts that could help speed commercialization to bring the results to the marketplace. Among the most promising works in progress are the following.
Liquids. Responding to the demand for quick detection of fluid-based explosives in common consumer liquid and gel containers, efforts at Forschungszentrum Jülich GmbH, an interdisciplinary research center in Jülich, Germany, have produced technologies that promise detection of liquid-borne threats through methods that are both rapid and uncomplicated for the end user, developers say.
The first technology, developed by Professor Norbert Klein at the Jülich center, is relatively simple. A liquid container is placed against the detection device, which emits radiation in the radio and microwave ranges. The device senses the test substance’s reaction to determine its conductivity and its dielectric constant, meaning the capability of the substance to hold an electric charge. The test takes less than a second and can detect triacetone triperoxide (TATP), other peroxide-based explosives, as well as alcohol, says Hugo Bibby technical director of Link Microtech, which is marketing the device in Britain for German firm Emisens.
The technology’s primary limitation: when it operates in the microwave range, it cannot test substances in metal containers. The system has undergone two successful airport trials in Europe and is currently under evaluation by the European Civil Aviation Conference, Bibby says.
(To read the full version of "Explosives Detection" by Assistant Editor Joseph Straw, click here.)
(To see the table of contents for the just published August issue of Security Management, click here.)

♦ Photo by Dano/Flickr


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