New bomb-sniffing device can identify chemical components of different explosives in open air

Law enforcement was able to thwart an attempt to set off an explosion in the middle of New York City's Times Square on May 1 thanks to the quick thinking of a T-shirt vendor who noticed smoke coming from a parked SUV. Unfortunately, the signs that a bomb is nearby are often more subtle, detectable only at a microscopic level.

Technology for detecting trace amounts of explosives can be found at high-security locations such as the Statue of Liberty. These ion mobility spectrometry machines—you can recognize them by the puff of air they blow in your direction as you walk by—are good at detecting the presence of chemicals used to make explosives, but they cannot identify which chemicals are present. Austria-based gas-analysis instrument maker Ionicon Analytik Gesellschaft m.b.H. claims to have a solution, from a technology originally used in industrial environments that can easily be adapted to work as a security device.

Ionicon Analytik's Proton-Transfer-Reaction Mass Spectrometry (PTR-MS) technology can distinguish substances that have very similar molecular structures and can correctly identify explosives, chemical warfare agents and chemicals that could be combined to create a bomb, says Kurt Becker, Polytechnic Institute of New York University's associate provost for research and technology initiatives. Becker, who is also a physics professor, serves as a consult to Ionicon Analytik.

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