Wine Sensor Repurposed for Liquid Bomb-Sniffing: Shampoo in Carry-Ons Again?

Travelers, rejoice! The end of battling with the TSA over which of your pint-size potions is allowed on board may be nigh, if a new technology funded by the DHS comes to pass.

liquid scanner

Could a clever remote liquid-scanner tech be repurposed from detecting spoiled wine to identifying liquid bombs at airports? The DHS thinks so. Cross your fingers–the end of the 3 oz. travel-size bottle may be near.


The technology is coming from research from UC Davis professor of chemistry Matthew Augustine, who developed a prototype some time ago. But Augustine’s tech was designed to remotely check bottles of wine to see if the wine was corked or contaminated without needing to open the bottle. The system was so successful UC Davis patented it, and licensed it to a spin-off unit called Winescan in 2002.

In the aftermath of the liquid bomb terrorism plot in 2006, Augustine began considering if his system could be used to remotely scan a container of liquid to see if it holds a benign substance like baby’s milk, contact lens solution, or shampoo instead of something sinister like a liquid explosive.

The technology relies on a variation of magnetic resonance imaging–systems you’re probably more familiar with in a medical scanner environment. In these systems, a body is subjected to a very strong magnetic field that aligns the magnetization of some of the body’s atoms. These are then given a little “kick” with a pulse of directed radio waves, and the energetic reaction of the atoms to the radio pulse gives away their location, as well as information about what material they’re made of. With clever computing, this data can be processed to give astonishingly detailed images inside a human body without damaging it in the way X-rays do.

In Augustine’s system, everything is a little simpler because you’re not trying to detect complex 2-D or 3-D structures, and the task is merely to peek into a variety of containers that shoot past on some sort of conveyor system and ascertain what’s inside. He’s been adapting the technology to cope with different bottle materials, including metallic soda cans, and has had such successes that the DHS is funding the project, to the tune of $800,000 at first, so that Denver-based Defense Capital Adivsers can try to develop a commercial-grade version.

The upshot? After it hits operational service, while you’ll probably still have to haul your liquids out of your carry-on luggage at airports, you’ll merely have to drop them into a special scanner system that verifies the contents. Then you’ll be permitted to board–and it’s likely that size limits on liquids carries could go too, as they’ll be effectively redundant.

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