Methods in place for detection of explosives

new detection technologies advanced in the prevention of concealment of explosives.

Current security methods in place for detection of explosives

The hunt to develop new and improved instruments to eradicate terrorism is on the increase as terrorists progressively produce increasingly more sophisticated instruments. Some of the high explosives that terrorists use such as RDX, TNT, and C4 propel huge blasts that are not always manageable by modern instruments. Added to that are comparatively new arsenal such as sarin gas that can have a concrete effect on nerve and is not always visible. All of this demands new and increasingly sophisticated counter-measures that can provide prompt and accurate detection and identification of these, and other, lethal chemicals.

Traditional methods used have most famously been dogs that have sniffed out explosives, and trained to react in a positive way when detecting a lethal chemical, but dogs soon become tired or bored. In an interesting aside, scientists are beginning to train honeybees to sniff out lethal chemicals using advanced video computer software to monitor the bees in order to see their reaction. Trained bees do their work for two days after which they are retuned to the hive and a new population resourced. The system is still in the process of being experimented with but the biotechnology firm Inscentinel insists that bees are more competent than sniffer dogs (BBC, 207).

Machines used to detect explosives include ion trap mobility spectrometer (ITMS) and differential mobility spectrometer (DMS) that has taken the place of the formerly used chemiluminescience. Meanwhile, amplifying fluorescence polymers (AFP) uses molecule recognition to subsume the fluorescence of a polymer.

X-ray machines are another commonly used instrument that detects explosives by examining the density of the items passing through the machine. Computed axial tomography using color-coding is employed here in order to detect chemical or detonators that are hidden within items such as clothing. Similarly, especially designed machines bombard the suspected item with neutrons and read the result in order to analyze the chemical composition of the sample. Explosive compounds contain similar ratios of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen and the specific machine will be able to detect these.

In short, the current technological instruments used for detection are either active or passive. Active methods include neutron activation where concentrated neutron flux is identified and controlled.

The usual chemical instruments used to detect and monitor lethal chemicals and analyze them include gas and liquid chromatography as well as various spectographies including mass spectography. Given their wildness and complications with transport, these cannot always be used for a range of counter-terrorist circumstances, and, in these cases, portable detection instruments have been created which are generally based on ion mobility spectrometry and surface acoustic waves. Complications, however, exist in that there may be (and often exist) false positives, questions of identification, and the chemical range of identification may be unclear or beyond that of the portable standard laboratory instrument. All of these may confound detection and make it more complex. Scientists are working at these complications.

Emerging technology for detection of explosives

More promising recent innovations include nuclear quadruple resonance (NQT) that uses an externally applied radio frequency magnetic field pulse at a certain preplanned and consistent frequency in order to send out a signal that can be detected with a sensitive receiver and antenna. Since its makeup is extremely sensitive to the lowest and thinnest of signals, NQR results in a low quantity if false alarms and due to its consistency and coherent signal, it is able to detect a high variety of explosives and lethal chemicals. It does, however, have difficulty in detecting TNT and similarly is unable to detect liquid explosives that are virtually invisible, and, being intangible and easy to transport can be taken anywhere to arbitrarily wreak insouciant destruction. In terms of the latter, national and international laws have been created, as a result, discouraging mass meetings and allowing possession of maximum 100 ml of liquid at one time on one person in order to impede these instruments of death.

On the plus side, NQR is most helpful in detecting RCX which is the explosive that is the highest threat to aviation security and seems to be also helpful in detecting landmines.

Issues that are under exploration

Since countless public security issues are involved as ramification of these technological detection instruments, scientists have a lot to work on and some of these issues include the following: Issues of shielding. That detection of explosives not unnecessarily harms innocent bystanders, and precisely which combination of technologies should be used at higher levels of airport security. This involves system-engineering issues where the element of substances will have to be carefully assessed and measures most suitable to detecting those specific elements identified and selected. To elaborate, some detection methods have high repetition of success but are more successful with certain elements than with others, totally missing certain substances. Scientific and engineering analysis of this problem needs to be performed and consequent decisions implemented throughout the security system. Environments can also cause challenges to the detection of chemical weapons and explosive due to problems of shielding and noise sources. Physicists, using areas of research that involve signal detention and amplification are investigating these too.

Security policies in place and government measures

Governments and federal requirements such as the Montreal Convention (1991) issued order that detection taggants be placed on explosives in order to make detection easier. The Montreal Convention (1991), for instance, decreed as per international agreement that all manufacturers of explosives clearly and accurately describe the ingredients that went into producing this chemical (Knight, 2006). The UK similarly came out with its Marking of Plastic Explosives for Detection Regulations in 1996 (ibid.). Semtex is one example of a compound that now carries a taggant. It is made with DMNDB as detection taggant.

Ultimately, detection of terror lies not just on the strength and sophistication of the instrument used but also on the motivation, skill, intelligence, and ability of civilians employing that technology. Certain skills should therefore be imparted to security staff and personnel and these include: meticulously following instructions and careful reporting of information; acquiring and identifying documentation and licensing limitations; identification of breaches in site safety and acting on or reporting them and identifying labeling of hazardous materials and amongst a host of other requirements. Only when these are in place and accompanied by technological advancement can we hope to be one step ahead in the chase.


BBC. (2007-09-05) Hot picks: UK tech start-ups.

Coffey, M. Chemical and explosives detection. APS Physics.

Knight, W. (10 August 2006). Analysis: Explosive detection technologies. news service.

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