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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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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