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Idaho National Laboratory

From the INEEL Archives
Feature Story

Better Than Dogs - INEEL Technologies “Sniff Out” Smuggled Explosives

Contributed by Kathy Gatens
February 2003

With a one-upmanship on nature, National Security scientists are developing a technology that will eventually detect explosives hidden in a vehicle faster and from a greater and safer distance than is possible with bomb-sniffing dogs. Using neutron technology, the researchers can already detect the presence of an explosive surrogate sealed within a car trunk at a stand-off distance of three meters in a mere 400 seconds.

Photo of surrogate explosives in a car trunk

INEEL-developed technologies detected the surrogate explosives concealed in the containers within this car trunk.

Long the standard of military and law enforcement, bomb dogs can work a vehicle, sniffing tires, doors, trunks and hoods in about five minutes. That time does not include removing the vehicle from a traffic line or staging it for inspection. And for effective detection, the dogs must have access to the compartments in a suspect car, van or truck that might conceal the explosives. A customer, looking for increased security measures for vehicles entering military bases, asked INEEL researchers to try and develop a technology that improves on the labor-intensive practice of using canines.

"Before we considered any solution, we investigated every possible technology out there now," said Mike Occhionero, program manager for the Remote Standoff Explosive Detection project. "After a comprehensive evaluation of potential stand-off explosive technologies by our whole team of engineers and explosives experts, we drew the conclusion that only an active interrogation system would work."

Two Solutions

INEEL researchers actually came up with two potential solutions and demonstrated their capabilities to military representatives this past summer. Both systems use existing INEEL-developed neutron activation technologies, optimized for explosives detection. One solution is based on the Portable Isotopic Neutron Spectroscopy (PINS) system, an R&D 100 award-winning technology traditionally employed by the military to identify the contents of suspect chemical weapons. The other solution uses an accelerator about the size and maneuverability of automobile diagnostic computers. Both target the suspect vehicle or container with low levels of neutrons, and then analyze the characteristic gamma-ray response of specific chemical elements. This first test was simply intended to demonstrate the technologies’ ability to detect the explosive at all, and then, hopefully, at up to one meter.

Both PINS and the accelerator conclusively identified the surrogate explosive, but after some system design changes based on numerical modeling predictions, the INEEL scientists demonstrated the accelerator’s ability to detect the material at three times the original distance.

Dr. James Jones describes the accelerator-based explosives detection technology

Dr. James Jones describes the accelerator-based explosives detection technology to representatives from the Department of Defense Physical Security Equipment Action Group.

"We weren’t actually expecting to be able to detect it from that far that soon," said Occhionero. "But now that we have, our next goals include doing it even faster, lowering the detection time."

Additional demonstrations were conducted in October before representatives of the Department of Defense Physical Security Equipment Action Group. PSEAG members evaluate research programs and technologies supporting military security programs.

The demonstrations mimicked one possible implementation scenario, in which the inspection system would be placed underground. After the two researchers conducted the separate tests - Gus Caffrey first ran PINS, then James Jones ran the accelerator test - they fielded questions from the PSEAG members.

Many of the questions centered on shielding. Terrorists could attempt to shield the explosives with everything from lead to polyethylene. Caffrey responded.

"Massive amounts of lead would be needed to shield the bottom of a vehicle - as much as four inches of lead," explained Caffrey. "PINS would see the lead gamma rays. Materials used in shielding would reveal themselves in the gamma signatures of any neutron activation system."

Research Continues

Research continues on increasing the distance and reducing the time of detection, and also on ensuring the safety of operators and civilians. The precedent for successfully using these types of systems exists in everyday applications from dental X-rays to mining, where small neutron generators are lowered into wells. The PINS system is already safely and successfully used worldwide. As in all scientific or industrial processes, safety is ensured through the engineered design of the system and the process for using it.

Occhionero and team members are evaluating concepts for integrating the technologies into military base security.

"We are looking at a lot of ideas, including placing the system underground," said Occhionero. "Not only would that make it easy to inspect vehicles, the placement would offer excellent shielding."

"We believe the system could be used many places besides military bases, such as in federal building parking garages and even U.S. embassy driveways," said Occhionero. "We proved we could do it, now we want to optimize the design and get it out into the field."

Explosive detection research is one part of the INEEL’s overall critical infrastructure protection program, in which technologies, systems and policies that protect the nation’s core systems - such as energy, communications and transportation - are developed, tested and validated under real-world conditions. Other technologies being developed include a system to protect our nation’s ports by detecting smuggled nuclear materials in huge cargo containers, and one that preserves our reliance on oil and gas pipelines by pinpointing damage to pipelines and transmitting that data to central location. The critical infrastructure protection program encompasses vast physical test ranges for critical infrastructure including next generation wireless communications and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems.

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