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Sniffing out illicit drugs and explosives.

Narcotics shippers and munitions smugglers will find it harder to hide thanks to a new breed of scientists-chemical detectives. Their techniques can find drugs and bombs without opening suspect containers, making a search safer. Moreover, these sleuths' "sniffers" are both portable and neutron-driven - a combination never before achieved.

All start with a simple fact. Each illicit drug and explosive is made of characteristic combinations of compounds. Hence, it emits a unique, readily identifiable chemical signature. As an example, the oxygen/nitrogen ratio in all known explosives differs from that of materials commonly packed into suitcases. Knowing that, it is possible to detect explosives in airline luggage and, similarly, drugs hidden in ship containers.

Although the methods vary somewhat, most of these new detectors fire fast pulses of neutrons into the targeted area, then separate the components from the signals that flash back. "The neutrons easily penetrate through the packaging of the interrogated material," explains George Vourvopoulos, a physicist at Western Kentucky University. "One might say that a large variety of items in a ship's container could confuse the carbon/hydroger ratic of the drugs." However, he points out, "the technique does not interrogate the total volume at once, but scans it over a very short time allowing acquisition of a profile of the characteristic elements."

One battery-powered instrument designed by nuclear physicist A.J. Caffrey along with his coworkers at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory "performs spectrum analysis and agent identification in near-real time." In January, 1993, the Army called on them to identify chemicals entombed at a World War I-era munitions test site - now an upscale neighborhood - in northwest Washington D.C.

A system developed in Albuquerque by the Titan Corp. has faced a similar in-the-trenches test over the past few months ferreting out land mines in the desert near Socorro, N.M. Originally built to sense explosive mines, the device has been modified to examine airport luggage Titan physicist Jerry Clifford indicates. In this concept, a high-energy X-ray machine illuminates the baggage, and a sensitive detector array measures the emanation that results. It functions he points out, much like positron emission tomography in medicine
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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