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Explosive detection technology can identify substance in latest airline bombing attempt

PETN has been confirmed as the explosive material that was used in the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airline flight bound for Detroit on Christmas Day.

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PETN has been confirmed as the explosive material that was used in the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airline flight bound for Detroit on Christmas Day. PETN is a highly explosive chemical that typically exists in powder form.

According to Craig Cummings, CEO of SpectraFluidics and former senior vice president at defense giant SAIC, it is difficult to detect using conventional airport scanning and inspection technology. “However, our detection technology is able to detect PETN and RDX – another difficult-to-detect explosive agent – at parts-per-trillion levels in air. To the best of our knowledge, no one other than SpectraFluidics can make that statement,” he said. His company has successfully completed its latest series of development tests involving the detection of trace levels of the explosives PETN, RDX, TNT and ammonium nitrate.

SpectraFluidics’ sensing technology can detect individual explosive molecules in the air emanating from either a passenger or their luggage, without the use of time-consuming and expensive swabs or reagents. It does not rely on a difference in density between the hidden explosive and the human body, nor does it require the hidden explosive to be visible on a whole body scanner – or subject a passenger to a “virtual strip search.” Finally, it is expected to cost a fraction of competing scanning alternatives.

SpectraFluidics’ first commercial product – scheduled for release in 2010 – can be configured as either a portal type of system or a hand-held device. The company also plans units for retrofitting existing airport scanners and other screening hardware already installed in the market. Ultimately, the devices will provide unparalleled, real-time sampling and detection of trace amounts of explosives in either vapor or solid phase, with minimal user interaction.

The technology was invented at the University of California, Santa Barbara, by professors and researchers from the mechanical engineering and chemistry departments. The inventors licensed the intellectual property from the University and formed SpectraFluidics to commercialize the technology. Since that time, SpectraFluidics has captured two US Army development and engineering contracts plus an investment from Cycad Group.

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