New device makes air travel safer

A simple boarding pass could safeguard air travellers if an explosives detection system being developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Mass Spec Analytical is adopted.

With the mass spectrometry-based instrument, a passenger’s ticket would reportedly become a passive-sampling device capable of detecting a billionth of a gram of explosives such as nitroglycerine and TNT.

The instrument works by sampling air that passes over a ticket as the paper is fed through a scanner and then identifying the chemical composition of the substances in the air. The procedure is said to take just a few seconds.

‘If a person has been in contact with explosives, this instrument would detect it,’ said Gary Van Berkel, a researcher in ORNL’s Chemical Sciences Division. ‘Even if the person were wearing protective clothing while handling the explosives, it would still almost certainly detect it.’

The beauty of the system, Van Berkel said, is that passengers would be sampled as they wait in line, thereby avoiding random checks with swabs and other less sophisticated techniques that cause delays, produce more false positives and fail to inspect 100 percent of the passengers.

‘This system would allow all of the passengers to be sampled with no increase in manpower,’ Van Berkel said

Mass Spec Analytical’s Jonathan Langton noted that the less sophisticated machines in use in airports do not afford the same level of protection.

Van Berkel and collaborators have already tested the instrument, which is reportedly capable of analysing 1,000 tickets or boarding passes per hour. One of the next steps is to incorporate a simple visual display that identifies the explosive and triggers an audible alarm. Developers also plan to add an automated calibration and threshold setting that would further prevent false alarms.

No special training would be required for operators of the final product, Van Berkel said.

The task facing Van Berkel and colleagues Doug Goeringer and Keiji Asano is to help Mass Spec Analytical determine the best ionisation source for the instrument, as the ionisation source enables the instrument to analyse the vapour and determine its identity.

Van Berkel envisions this technology being used to protect property by tagging it with a chemical that could be detected at portals or other checkpoints. Other potential applications include detecting drugs, chemical and biological weapons, and detecting pesticide residue on food.