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New Nanosensor Could Improve Border Security

With terrorists using more sophisticated methods to transport and detonate bombs better explosive detecting capabilities are needed.

Tel Aviv University researchers on Tuesday, claimed to have developed a powerful electronic sensor that is capable of finding numerous explosive chemicals and materials. This nanotechnology-based sensor is fast, highly portable and more sensitive and reliable for detecting explosives, said Prof. Fernando Patolsky of the Sackler School of Chemistry, who headed the research team.

Patolsky elaborated further saying that, the existing methods of detecting explosives such as TNT have drawbacks, like being high cost, bulky and requiringe long decoding time and also the requirement for an expert or laboratory analysis.

Patolsky said this newly sensor is particularly effective at detecting explosives like those used in the parcel bombs sent from Yemen to the United States.

The two bombs were reportedly carrying 300 grams and 400 grams of the high explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate, or PETN, hidden inside toner cartridges.

"PETN is very powerful, but it is not at all volatile so it hardly releases any molecules into the air. So dogs have a very hard time finding it, especially if it is hidden inside something else," Patolsky said.

"There is a need for a small, inexpensive, handheld instrument capable of detecting explosives quickly, reliably and efficiently," he said. "Our experiments show that our prototype is sensitive enough to discover it" he added.

The important enhancements in the new sensor are that, firstly it can be transported easily by hand. Secondly it can detect explosives from afar. For example, it can be mounted on a wall, with no need to bring it into contact with the item being checked. More importantly, it enables definitive identification of the explosive that it has found, with no detection errors or failures, unlike sensors currently in use, Patolsky maintained.

This enhanced new sensor uses arrays of silicon nano-wires forming an electronic nano-transistor which is supersensitive to the electrical environment around it.

To enhance the chips' sensitivity, the wires have been coated with a compound that binds to explosives, also the chips have been fitted with 200 individual sensors, for detecting a large variety of explosives and an unprecedented degree of reliability, said Patolsky.

His research team, touted to be the best in the world, first published their findings in August, in the German chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie.The development has been making waves since, among the scientists and security companies around the world.

Researchers have teamed up with a commercial company and hope to have a working product on the market within "a year or two," Professor Fernando Patolsky, the head of the development team, told AFP.

"We have tremendous interest from the American military, the Israeli military and security companies," he said

The Israeli company Nanergy, Inc., already developing fuel cells for portable electronics as well as stationary backup power, has also begun developing a prototype based on the patent, and is already in contact with companies that develop explosives sensors.

The research team has further begun development of nanometric sensors for the detection of chemical and biological molecules. Such sensors may be used to detect not only explosives, but also biological toxins such as anthrax, cholera and botulinum.

The technology's applications may be useful not only for national security, but in the biological and medical fields as well.


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