Landmines are one of the worst remnants of war; they remain long after conflict has ended. There are currently 110 million mines in 64 countries, including many peaceful ones. The good news: People around the world are working as fast as they can on landmine removal–an arduous process that currently costs up to $1,000 per landmine.
Engineers at the University of Connecticut have devised a potential low-tech solution: a chemical system that senses landmines without any high-tech scientific instruments. The system consists of a fluorescent film that senses explosive vapors (found in buried landmines) when applied to areas thought to harbor explosives. If a landmine is present, an ultraviolet light held to the film will indicate its exact location, turning the area of the film over the explosive from fluorescent blue to a dark circle.
There are few limits to what the chemical system can detect–it can sense nitroaromatics, TNT (used by the military), and a number of elements found in plastic explosives, which are typically difficult to detect. It’s fast (it can detect initial vapors in seconds), effective (detecting elements in the parts per trillion), affordable, and lightweight enough that film can be unfurled over a hazardous area like a large piece of paper.
Already, landmine removal organizations are expressing interest in the chemical detection system. “We would be very interested in following up on any kind of research that looks at chemical detection systems,” said Erik Tollefsen of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining in a statement. “This is something we might use as a quality control tool for animal detection. There are some cost benefits here.” Dogs are commonly used in landmine detection today, but they get tired–something that a strip of fluorescent film will never do.
Soon, landmine removal agencies will have plenty of new options. One 17-year-old has figured out how to use sound waves to detect landmines. And a group of students at the Military University of Technology in Warsaw have come up with a smartphone app that can hunt the explosive devices.