Originally appeared in Tuesday, September 3, 2002 Oak Ridger
Gary Van Berkel, a researcher in Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Chemical Sciences Division, feeds a boarding pass through the explosives detection device.
-- Photo by Jim Richmond/ORNL
ORNL helps build homeland security
by Duncan Mansfield
OAK RIDGE, Tenn. - Can an airplane boarding pass really become the ticket to exposing a suicide bomber?
It could with technology developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where scientists say everything from one-celled creatures to cellular phone towers could prove useful in the war on terrorism.
Military and civilian researchers have worked hand-in-hand at the 3,800-employee lab since its top-secret inception in the rolling hills of east Tennessee in World War II.
Helping to build the first atomic bomb has led to advances in commercial nuclear power, high-strength composite materials for the auto and aircraft industries and isotopes for medicine.
Since Sept. 11, Oak Ridge scientists and their Energy Department colleagues across the country have redirected their research to the war on terrorism.
"I have been surprised by the relevance of apparently irrelevant technologies to this problem," said Dr. Bill Madia, Oak Ridge lab director.
The lab still does plenty of work for the Department of Defense, but Madia says those assignments may not offer the best solutions to preventing, warning or managing attacks on civilians.
"We are finding everything from agricultural extension services to software engineers - hackers - having the technology we are looking for. They really come from the broadest imagined scientific community," he said.
Madia points to the work of biologist Elias Greenbaum and his molecular bioscience group.
For four years, the researchers studied the photosynthetic reaction of algae, microorganisms that occur naturally in lakes and rivers, to contaminates.
"If you put a large amount of anything, like spring runoff of pesticides in a lake, the algae begin to fluoresce in a way that signals something big has changed in their world. It's a natural signal," Madia said.
"Well, when you think about it, that signal also can tell you that somebody has tried to poison your water supply."
The researchers created instruments to instantly and continuously monitor these microorganisms for installation, say, on the intake pipe for a municipal water system.
Tennessee American Water Co., which supplies Chattanooga and is a subsidiary of the nation's largest water utility, American Water Co., is talking to the lab.
"They are interested in either being the demonstration site or actually being a partner in taking this to market," said Dr. Michael Kuliasha, a longtime lab official who was named its homeland security program director three weeks after the terrorist attacks.
Lab operators seek $5 million from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency this fall for another demonstration of its homeland security technologies - an emergency network linking chemical, biological and radiological sensors mounted on existing cell phone towers.
Called "SensorNet," this integrated emergency system would identify poisonous gases or radioactivity, then set off an alarm at first-responder dispatch stations, telling them what the poison is, where it is headed and how civilians should respond.
The system was developed with support from the weather-watching National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and American Tower Corp., which owns some 10,000 cell tower sites.
The system was successfully tested in March in a linkup between Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga. Funding this fall will pay for a larger test, probably involving Atlanta.
Another lab invention - the first portable mass spectrometer capable of quickly identifying chemical or biological agents in a battlefield setting - was used in the SensorNet test.
That device, underwritten by the Pentagon at a cost of $48 million over the past five years, is designed to replace sensors used in the Gulf War that were so unreliable the troops ignored them.
The battlefield spectrometer is now undergoing field tests in Utah. But the Marines already talk about its potential for protecting civilian populations around their bases.
The Oak Ridge lab is an international leader in mass spectrometry - a powerful analytical technique that can identify unknown compounds at their molecular level.
Using that technology, Oak Ridge researchers have devised an airline ticket scanner that can detect the smallest traces of explosives in less than 5 seconds - a 1,000-tickets-an-hour rate that shouldn't add much to growing airport security delays.
"The basic concept is that if you have touched an explosive or you have an explosive with you it is very hard not to get the residue on you somewhere and that eventually gets transmitted to your hands," said Gary Van Berkel, the lab's mass spectrometry group leader.
"This device is very, very sensitive," he said. "There is evidence that you can detect second- or third-hand contact."
What does that mean? "A guy makes a bomb. He puts it in a suitcase. A second guy picks up the suitcase, then shakes hands with another guy. You check that third guy," Van Berkel said.
Van Berkel said his team expects to have the instrument in an airport field test within three months through the government's Safe Skies Alliance, either at Knoxville or Orlando, Fla.
Two major mass spectrometry companies, MDS Sciex of Ontario, Canada, and Mass Spec Analytical Ltd. of Bristol, England, work closely with the lab on the project.
Though mass spectrometry is far more accurate then the explosives detectors currently common in airports, the machines can be three times as expensive - at about $250,000 apiece.
The Sept. 11 attacks, however, made cost less important, Van Berkel said.
Mass spectrometry "is more attractive because it is the technology that will work," he said.
Madia said nationally, scientists are discovering thousands of ideas in how to use existing technologies for homeland security.
"That is actually going to be one of the big challenges of homeland security," he said. "How do you screen tens of thousands of ideas that may be the Holy Grail of solving the terrorist threat?"
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