Sniffing out a broad-spectrum of airborne threats in seconds

June 9, 2008

Scientists in California are reporting successful laboratory and field tests of a new device that can sniff out the faintest traces of a wide range of chemical, biological, nuclear, and explosive threats - and illicit drugs - from the air in minutes with great accuracy. The ultra-sensitive detector, known as the single-particle aerosol mass spectrometry (SPAMS) system, could tighten security at airports, sports stadiums and other large-scale facilities, according to their report, scheduled for the July 1 issue of ACS' Analytical Chemistry.

Matthias Frank and colleagues explain that chemical, biological, nuclear, and explosive materials, as well as illicit drugs, all release minute amounts of aerosol particles into the air. Detecting these particles requires a device with a high sensitivity, low probability of false alarms, and a fast response time.

"SPAMS uniquely meets these requirements in realistic field environments," the report states. While other aerosol detectors exist, SPAMS is specifically designed for the rapid detection of low-concentration aerosols, it adds.

The study describes laboratory tests of SPAMS and extended field tests at San Francisco International Airport. It showed that within seconds, SPAMS detected a diverse set of materials including simulants for potentially hazardous biological, chemical and radiological materials, as well as actual explosives and drugs. The study terms SPAMS a "significant and important advance in rapid aerosol threat detection."

Source: ACS

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