New nano-scale sensors may sniff out terrorists

From the MOSCOW INSTITUTE OF PHYSICS AND TECHNOLOGY

Nanosensors on the alert for terrorist threats

Scientists interested in the prospects of gas sensors based on binary metal oxide nanocomposites

This is a schematic representation of a binary sensor based on two metal oxides, with the nanoparticles of the catalytically active component (1) in yellow and the nanoparticles of the electron donor component (2) represented by the unshaded circles. CREDIT the MIPT press office

This is a schematic representation of a binary sensor based on two metal oxides, with the nanoparticles of the catalytically active component (1) in yellow and the nanoparticles of the electron donor component (2) represented by the unshaded circles. CREDIT the MIPT press office

Scientists from the Semenov Institute of Chemical Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ICP RAS) and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) have demonstrated that sensors based on binary metal oxide nanocomposites are sensitive enough to identify terrorist threats and detect environmental pollutants. The results of their study have been published in Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical.

Due to rapid industrial growth and the degradation of the environment, there is a growing need for the development of highly effective and selective sensors for pollutant detection. In addition, gas sensors could also be used to monitor potential terrorist threats.

“Choosing the right sensor composition can make a device at least ten times more effective and enable an exceptionally fast response, which is crucial for preventing terrorist attacks,” says Prof. Leonid Trakhtenberg of the Department of Molecular and Chemical Physics at MIPT, who is the leader of the research team and the head of the Laboratory of Functional Nanocomposites at ICP RAS.

According to the research findings, the most promising detection systems are binary metal oxide sensors, in which one component provides a high density of conductive electrons and another is a strong catalyst.

A mixed system of that kind has the two necessary components for effective gas detection, viz., an electron donor and a substance “accommodating” the reaction. An additional factor contributing to faster sensor response is the formation of chemisorption centers, i.e., the chemically active spots on the nanocrystals that facilitate gas molecule adsorption.

“We are planning further research into the possibilities for sensor design presented by the multicomponent metal oxide nanocomposites incorporating nanofibers. The development of new effective sensor compositions will be based on a reasonably balanced approach involving both the experimental tests and the advancement of our theoretical understanding of the sensing mechanisms,” comments Prof. Trakhtenberg.

A rather promising approach to the development of new gas detection systems is the use of “core-shell type” composite metal oxide nanofibers, where the “core” and the “shell” are composed of two different oxides.

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23 thoughts on “New nano-scale sensors may sniff out terrorists

  1. Well maybe I might be willing to forego an appeal against illegal searches when they sniff out explosives on luggage going onto planes. Just maybe, mind you.

    But if we have to buy this from the Russians won’t that turn us into communists?

    And the rays these machines emit will make us for for T…. !

    • This idea works on chemistry, no rays involved. ‘Just’ a more sensitive way of detecting particular kinds of molecules or types of molecule. I suspect they are working down in the syb parts per trillion range and looking for molecules, or parts of particular molecules that come only from the making or handling particular military explosives or particular combinations terrorists could put together such as fuel oil/ammonium nitrate.

    • Here’s the problem. Such sensors would detect small concentrations of chemicals, which means the potential for false positives is high. I’ve already encountered something like this (although much lower tech) while going through airport security.

      A little background. I’m an NRA certified Range Safety Officer and instructor. I shoot regularly and spend hours maintaining firearms and reloading ammunition. It’s safe to say most of my clothes have gunpowder residue in them.

      Apparently this was enough to set off the “puffer” scanner (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puffer_machine) at Indianapolis International and I was subjected to over an hour of questioning, “enhanced” searches, people rubbing chemical wipes on me, and generally being humiliated in front of my family and dozens of strangers.

      Of course I’m a bit of an exception, but I’ve heard similar stories from people that shoot far less frequently than I do. Others have spoken of setting off the sensors after working in their garden, refueling vehicles, or handling various household chemicals. Even hand lotions that contain glycerin can set them off.

      I never fly now unless there is simply no other way to get where I need to go. My concern is that technology like this could (and probably will) be installed in public places, meaning that people will be accosted by security simply because they set off a chemical sensor.

      Perhaps this technology will be smarter than the puffer scanner – but I doubt that it will ever be sophisticated enough to eliminate false positives.

      • I never fly now unless there is simply no other way to get where I need to go.

        I’m with you. 1k+ miles and time sensitive or it crosses an ocean. Otherwise I don’t fly.

      • When I lived in Huntsville, I lived in an apartment complex just off the base. Every week we could hear explosions from the demolitions classes they held their.
        I remember one time they found an unexploded bomb from WWII era excercises near the western gate.
        They built a berm around it, then used explosives to detonate it. The problem was that the bomb hadn’t degraded as much as the experts expected. When I heard the explosiion, I looked up just in time to see the sliding glass door bow in about half an inch.

      • @MarkW
        The only thing that really degrades in that type of munition is the detonator components. The payload, which is usually TNT, is good until about the heat death of the universe. Today or a hundred years from today you are going to get the same pop.

  2. “Due to rapid industrial growth and the degradation of the environment, there is a growing need for the development of highly effective and selective sensors for pollutant detection.”

    Say what? This is complete bullcarp! True developing economies do tent to “ignore” the environmental impact in favour of progress however, usually, that impact is cleaned up.

      • Good point MarkW.

        In fact this was (at least IMHO) a problem with response to the Fukushima reactor accident. Both radiation and radioactive contamination can be detected at levels so low as to be insignificant. But the media and general public just see ‘radiation detected in Pacific tuna’ and suddenly people start freaking out. Never mind that the levels were below the natural levels occurring in bananas and Brazil nuts.

        I can see the EPA and the companies that do chemical clean-ups seizing on those lower chemical detection limits to ‘create’ more places that need cleaning. We already saw it to a point with the Radon scare.

  3. “New nano-scale sensors may sniff out terrorists”

    Future headline: “ISIS Discovers Soap – Defeats Nanosensors”

      • philohippous,

        somehow you didn’t get the humor part of that. Nowhere in the text does the article mention explosives detection. “Terrorist threats” come in many forms. In the end, the researchers are just trying to hype a fear-factor to get research money, not that that is bad, but you should just understand the motives involved in those statements.

        To be non-PC (as the humor was intended), if you’ve ever flown on a British Airways flight out of Heathrow to a Middle East capital, you’d know that soap is one item still awaiting discovery by entire subsets of humanity.

    • Homeopathic remedies apparently “work” at those concentrations, likely a placebo effect.

      And the placebo effect is largely what our TSA is today.

    • My thought, exactly, Mr. Armstrong. Another way for the Russians (who ARE the “former” Soviet Union) to use their Envirostalinist tools in the West to destroy it economies.

      As Patrick MJD, MarkW, and ddpalmer, above, pointed out/discussed:

      … there is a growing need for the development of highly effective and selective sensors for pollutant detection.

      is the key. The anti-terrorist angle is just a smoke screen.

      “Pollutant detection” — right.

  4. Sadly, I believe Mr. Armstrong is correct. As with other technological advances in detection devices all that we have accomplished are methods for better measurement with little to no discussion with the uninformed general public of what these numbers mean. The data is then used to frighten the ignorant into some unnecessary agenda. When the Japanese nuclear reactors had their meltdowns alarmists were reporting detecting radiation reaching the west coast of the US. What they conveniently omitted was that the amount of radiation being detected was only a fraction of the amount one might receive by holding a banana in ones hand.

  5. 10 times more sensitive than existing tech. Oh Boy, the EPA will use these devices to “up their anti”. They already are outlawing mercury, etc. which is detectable but not at a dangerous consentration.
    Regarding terrorists, shouldn’t this technology be designated Top Secret?

    • Could someone leave a link to detectable-but-not-dangerous mercury concentrations? I’ve reviewed some excellent studies regarding radioactivity and what constitutes a hazardous dosage, but have found nothing that rises above anecdotal or correlative evidence on the web regarding mercury. No real studies. Would love to learn more about it.

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