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PNNL science, technology help keep America safe

November 15, 2001 Share This!

RICHLAND, Wash. – A holographic imaging system that scans people at airports for hidden weapons, a device that looks for threats and contraband in sealed containers, and an innovative polymer that helps detect nerve agents are among the many counter-terrorism technologies under development at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

PNNL engineers are expected to demonstrate the technologies today at DOE's technology expo held in the Forrestal Building, in Washington, D.C.

Looking for hidden objects with AID

The Acoustic Inspection Device, or AID, originally was developed by PNNL for U.S. and Russian chemical weapons bilateral treaty verification and for inspection of chemical weapon stockpiles in Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. A handheld device roughly the size and shape of a large flare gun and containing a sensor head, the AID is tethered to a personal digital assistant, linked to a data library and can determine the contents of sealed, liquid-filled containers. It also can examine bulk-solid commodities, detecting foreign objects, contraband or hidden explosives. Mehl, Griffin and Bartek, a company located in Arlington, Va., currently is customizing AID for the U. S. Customs Service.

A similar version of the device now is being used along the borders in Eastern Europe for detecting smuggled goods.

The sensor, which transmits ultrasonic pulses and detects any return echoes, is positioned on the outside wall of a container. As sound waves are transmitted, the return echoes bouncing off the other side of the container are analyzed to identify the characteristics of the contents and compare those features against information in the data library, thereby allowing the inspector to identify the material or liquid contents.

In addition to characterization and detection, AID can measure the level of liquid in a container.

Airport scanner detects hidden plastics, metals

The millimeter wave Holographic Imaging System is an innovative technology originally designed for the Federal Aviation Administration to detect both metallic and nonmetallic items concealed under clothing-such as plastic or ceramic handguns and knives-as well as more dangerous items such as plastic and liquid explosives.

The system uses millimeter waves that can penetrate clothing but are harmless to people. The system includes an array hooked to a transceiver that uses centimeter waves to illuminate a person. Those signals penetrate clothing and reflect off the body or items concealed on the body. Another array collects those reflected signals and a computer algorithm program reconstructs the data into images of the person.

PNNL has had a holography program in place for nearly 30 years and originally developed nondestructive evaluation technologies for nuclear reactors. In the mid-1980s, the FAA became interested in the potential this technology had for scanning people passing through airports.

Glass fibers detect nuclear weapons components

Plutonium Measurement and Analysis, or PUMA, is a revolutionary radiation monitoring system that uses glass fibers to detect the presence of radionuclides, such as plutonium. This flexible, lightweight, low-power detection system can be used to monitor an inventory of nuclear materials and has significant potential in countering the threat of nuclear terrorism.

The innovative use of glass fibers is a breakthrough in the field of radiation detectors. Glass fibers offer substantial flexibility over conventional neutron detection technologies, most of which use rigid helium-filled tubes. PUMA's glass fibers contain lithium-6 atoms and cerium ions that detect the presence of radionuclides. The neutrons react with the lithium isotope to leave an ionization trail through the glass matrix, which results in light emission from the cerium. PUMA is being commercialized by Nucsafe of Knoxville, Tenn.

Device delivers on-the-spot warnings

Rapid detection of biological threats requires more than a detector. BEADS, short for Biodetection Enabling Analyte Delivery System, was created to fill the gap between dirty environmental samples containing potential biothreats and sensitive detectors requiring a purified cell, proteins or DNA. BEADS isolates bacteria, spores, viruses and their DNA from air, dirt or water samples. The PNNL-developed technology is fully automated so that detectors can analyze samples and monitor for threats without requiring a person to manually prepare the samples. With BEADS sample preparation systems as a front-end technology, detectors can be deployed as unattended biothreat monitors. With Navy funding, BEADS is being developed to monitor for infectious diseases that may threaten military personnel, while DOE is pursuing BEADS as a front-end technology for multiplexed biodetection units for homeland defense applications.

Special polymer senses nerve agents

Detecting invisible chemical agent vapors is important in monitoring the safety of air in buildings or subways, and for protecting first responders to terrorist incidents. Scientists at PNNL have developed a novel polymer material for detecting chemical agent threats. When this polymer is applied to a chemical microsensor, the sensor can detect nerve agents with high sensitivity and reliability. The polymer absorbs nerve agent molecules from the air so the sensor can detect them. This technology has been transferred to Microsensor Systems Inc. for incorporation into its HAZMATCATTM handheld chemical agent detector. PNNL technology has significantly increased that detector's sensitivity to nerve agents, such as sarin, resulting in faster response times to lower agent concentrations.

Business inquiries on these technologies should be directed to 1-888-375-PNNL or

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Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of about $950 million. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information on PNNL, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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