BOSTON (CBS) – Technology that detects one of the most common explosives will be field tested soon after 8 years of research and development by the University of Rhode Island.
“It’s exciting because the endgame all along has been something like what we’re talking about today,” said Dr. Otto Gregory, the professor of chemical engineering who developed sensors that pick up on the presence of triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, in controlled areas like airports or hallways.
Gregory is an expert in sensor technology, particularly sensors used in jet engines. He says the TATP project sprung from discussions with colleagues who expressed the need for sensors sophisticated enough to detect trace explosives.
“When we talk about terrorism, we usually mention all kinds of other threats but let’s face it, the easiest thing to do is explosives,” chemistry professor Dr. Jimmie Oxley told WBZ-TV.
In her research, Oxley is working to identify the signatures of many types of explosives but says the hardest to counter are made from common household chemicals, such as TATP derived from acetone and peroxide. Terrorists in Paris wore suicide vests packed with TATP during an attack on the city in November 2015. TATP has also been used in failed attacks on London, a Philippine Airlines flight, and notably- the shoe bomb of Richard Reid.
“It’s hard to shut down legitimate chemicals,” said Oxley. “Acetone and hydrogen peroxide are legitimate chemicals, so what do you do about it?”
Gregory’s solution is to use a team of sensors the size of micro-chips packed into a device the size of a suitcase and connected to a laptop. The laptop monitors information sent by the sensors and displays a spike in a graph if explosives are present in the immediate area. His technology will be field tested by the Federal Aviation Administration in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and a port in Savannah, Georgia, within the next year.
“In the wrong hands, it’s a nasty material and we want to be able to warn people,” said Gregory of the sensors. He told WBZ-TV news of the Paris attacks made him want to fast-track the painstaking and deliberate process of developing the technology, which is funded by the Department of Homeland Security.
Much of his work since the project launched in 2008 has been to increase the sensitivity of the sensors while limiting the possibility of false alarms. Explosives experts like Dr. Oxley say that’s one of the most unique aspects of Dr. Gregory’s design.
“It’s not like running your bag thru the same machine twice,” said Oxley who notes false alarms can lead to apathy from a privacy-conscious public. “Dr. Gregory’s technique is actually two sensors in one. So it shouldn’t alarm on both. That’s really what’s special about his sensor.”