A Sensor That Sniffs Out Shoe Bombs

shoe bomb sensor

Two chemists have developed an easy-to-use sensor that can sniff out an explosive used in shoe bombs. The University of Illinois researchers, Kenneth Suslick and Hengwei Lin, who had published their findings in The Journal of the American Chemical Society, have interested Palo Alto-based iSense in commercializing their device.

Triacetone triperoxide (TATP) was the detonator for the failed shoe bombing attempt aboard an American Airlines in December 2001. But the chemical evades most methods of chemical sensing, since it doesn’t fluoresce or easily ionize; the only techniques available for detection until now involve huge equipment or elaborate sample preparation.

Suslick and Lin claim to have sidestepped these problems with a sensor array that can detect tiny amounts of TATP vapor, even when in concentrations as low as two parts per billion.

The researchers printed 16 colored dots of different pigments on a plastic film. Components in TATP have properties that change the colors of the dots, much like a litmus test. “Imagine a polka-dotted postage stamp sensor,” said Suslick in a press release. (Left, an image from his paper gives an idea.) “The pattern of the color change is a unique molecular fingerprint for TATP at any given concentration and we can identify it in a matter of seconds.”

The researchers developed a functional prototype, shown at the top of this post, and it’s now up to iSense to bring it to market. Does that mean a shorter line at security since we won’t have to take our shoes off? We’ll have to wait to see if the TSA adopts it. But don’t hold your breath.

[Image credit, Kenneth Suslick]DZ