New chip uses nanosensors to detect even smallest traces of explosives


Airport security might just get even tougher with a new discovery that allows the detection of the slightest amounts of chemicals used to make explosives.

Researchers at Israel's Tel Aviv University worked with nanotechnology company Tracense to develop a new kind of electronic chip equipped with multiple microscopic sensors that can sniff out even just a few molecules per quadrillion in the air, even if they are 16 meters away. To give you an idea of how effective the new technology could be, most current airport security systems use ion mobility spectrometry to identify molecules in the air by measuring how fast they move through an electric field. This technique can detect only a few molecules per billion, and some of them wouldn't even be sure about it. The new nanochip is a million times more effective than current technologies.

The device, which is still in its prototype stage, was inspired by how the human nose works. Inside the olfactory system, we have small receptors that can identify a vast amount of smells based on how the molecules bind to each receptor. Similarly, the small nano-detector is equipped with different receptors that can identify chemicals by observing how molecules bind to each receptor.

"Different explosives species display a distinctive pattern of interaction with the nanosensing array, thus allowing for a simple and straightforward identification of the molecule under test," writes Fernando Patolsky and colleagues, who wrote about their findings in the Nature Communications journal.

Far smaller and more portable from the bulky and cumbersome equipment we see in airports, the new device can detect far more explosives chemicals than most bomb detectors currently in use. Some people complain of security personnel going too far into their personal space when checking for explosives and other weapons, but that will hopefully become a thing of the past with this new nano-detector.

The device is so sensitive that it doesn't only detect explosives chemicals, it can also detect them from a range of 13 to 16 feet. The researchers tested the chip's ability to accurately smell out a variety of explosives, including TNT, RCX and HMX, which are commonly used in military and commercial applications. They also found the chip effective in detecting TATP and HMTD, hard-to-detect chemicals used in making improvised explosives. The researchers conducted the tests with only five seconds of exposure and, in some cases, in areas contaminated with cigarette smoke.

Seeing how sensitive our new security devices could be, it's worth noting that there are still a lot of issues to be resolved by the chip's developers. It raises the issue of false positives, such as when terrorists cause panic or distraction by smearing trace amounts of explosives chemicals on innocent passengers' luggage. Engineers and other industrial workers might also be concerned as well.

Still, the inconvenience of being stopped by airport personnel because of a few chemical molecules on innocent people's hands sounds way better than getting blown up in the sky. 

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