How Will New Handheld Bomb Detector Save Lives?


SALT LAKE CITY, UT (GOOD4UTAH) – A new hand-held device developed at the University of Utah could protect people from bombs and have broad safety benefits to pilots and passengers. 

Alkane fuel is a key ingredient in combustible materials, including homemade bombs. It has previously been nearly impossible to detect since it is both orderless and colorless, and not chemically reactive. 

University of Utah engineers have developed a new type of fiber material for a handheld scanner that can detect even small traces of this fuel vapor. 

This could be a game-changing advancement. The tool could be used as a portable early-warning signal for leaks in pipelines or airliners and for locating terrorist explosive devices, the University says. 

In the past, the traditional way of detecting alkane fuel vapor was to used an oven-sized instrument, in a lab. The breakthrough development of the material for a hand-held scanner was published on Friday, March 25, 2016 in the American Chemical Society’s Journal ACS Sensors

The development team is led by University of Utah materials science and engineering professor Ling Zang, who is a faculty member with the Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR) economic development initiative. 

“It’s not mobile and very heavy,” Zang said, speaking of the old lab sized instrument, “there’s no way it can be used in the field. Imagine trying to detect a leak from gas valves…you ought to have something portable.”

The new type of fiber, developed by Zang’s team at the U, is a composite that utilizes two nanofibers transferring electrons to one another.

“These are two materials that interact well together by having electrons transferring from one to the other,” says Ben Bunes, a postdoctoral fellow in the materials science and engineering department at Utah. “When an alkane is present, it sticks in between the two materials, blocking the electron transfer between the two [materials].”This interference would signal the detector that the alkane vapor is present.

A prototype of the handheld detector has been developed that will be able to detect a broad range of chemicals, making it able to detect explosives. The addition of this new fiber material will allow the detector to register alkanes. 

Vaporsens, a University of Utah spinoff company plans to market the new device in approximately a year and a half according to Zang. 

This will help detect leaks in oil pipelines, preventing possible spills and environmental damage and protecting our precious water sources. 

The device will be used to detect leaks in airplane fuel tanks which could save airlines the currently cumbersome check that can only be performed on the ground. This has the potential to save lives by giving pilots early warnings of a leak occurring in real time. 

The new detector will have major security benefits, as it can now be used to detect almost all explosives. 

The research was funded by the Department of Homeland Security, the National Science Foundation and NASA. The lead author of the paper is the University of Utah science and engineering doctoral student Chen Wang. Ben Bunes is coauthor. 

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