New NIST SRM supports the fight against terrorist bombings

May 30, 2012 By Mark Esser
The new NIST reference material for explosive traces contains meticulously measured concentrations of the explosives TATP and PETN. The material can be used to test and validate the ability of machines and methods to detect the explosives' presence. Credit: Talbott/NIST

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has released a new standard reference material (SRM) to aid in the detection of two explosive compounds that are known to be used by terrorists. Researchers designed the new test samples to simulate the size and behavior of residues that remain after handling the explosives PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) and TATP (triacetone triperoxide). Instrument developers, academic researchers and government labs can use the SRM to test, refine and validate their new detector designs.

The new test samples are available from NIST as Standard Reference Material (SRM) 2907, "Trace Terrorist Explosives Simulants."

Fabricating and handling explosives leaves trace residues of the explosives on skin, clothes or other possessions. These residues are invisible to the naked eye and difficult to remove but may be detected by sensitive explosives detectors. Airport collect residues with handheld swipe wands. The swipes are then heated to vaporize the explosives, and the vapors analyzed in a tabletop detector. Current detectors typically use a technique called ion mobility that can recognize specific ionized chemicals based on their chemical properties.

Both PETN and TATP are relatively difficult to detect in the field. The compounds were used in failed terrorist attacks by the "shoe bomber" in 2002 and the "underwear bomber" in 2009.

The new NIST reference material contains meticulously measured concentrations of these two explosives that can be used to test and validate the ability of machines and methods to detect the explosives' presence. The SRM is not itself explosive; it is formulated from inert particles coated with a trace amount of the two explosives.

NIST researchers certified the PETN and TATP content of the simulants using liquid chromatography with both ultraviolet absorbance and mass spectrometric detection. Analytical challenges included development of a new ionization-enhancing additive (for PETN) and a custom synthesized stable-isotope internal standard for the mass spectrometer measurements of TATP. Details of the development of the materials and the analytical methods used were described in a 2011 paper in Analytical Chemistry.

SRM 2907, Trace Terrorist Explosives Simulants, is the third SRM supporting the detection of trace explosives. Details, including pricing and distribution, are available at https://www-s.nist.gov/srmors/view_detail.cfm?srm=2907 . The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate funded the production of the work presented in this material under HSHQDC-10-00297 with NIST.

Standard are among the most widely distributed and used products from NIST. The agency prepares, analyzes and distributes about 1,300 different materials used throughout the world to check the accuracy of instruments, validate test procedures, and serve as the basis for quality control standards worldwide.

Explore further: Celebrating 100 years of crystallography

More information: W. MacCrehan, et al. Development of SRM 2907 trace terrorist explosives simulants for the detection of semtex and triacetone triperoxide. Anal. Chem., 2011, 83 (23), pp 9054–9059. Oct. 17, 2011 DOI: 10.1021/ac201967m

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Towards better explosives detectors

Oct 21, 2010

Over the past decade, Christine Mahoney and a team of scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Maryland have been working to stop the threat of terrorist-based attacks in the form of explosives ...

Recommended for you

The fluorescent fingerprint of plastics

1 hour ago

LMU researchers have developed a new process which will greatly simplify the process of sorting plastics in recycling plants. The method enables automated identification of polymers, facilitating rapid separation ...

Water and sunlight the formula for sustainable fuel

5 hours ago

An Australian National University (ANU) team has successfully replicated one of the crucial steps in photosynthesis, opening the way for biological systems powered by sunlight which could manufacture hydrogen ...

Rice chemist wins 'Nobel Prize of Cyprus'

5 hours ago

Rice University organic chemist K.C. Nicolaou has earned three prestigious international honors, including the Nemitsas Prize, the highest honor a Cypriot scientist can receive and one of the most prestigious ...

Researchers create engineered energy absorbing material

6 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Materials like solid gels and porous foams are used for padding and cushioning, but each has its own advantages and limitations. Gels are effective as padding but are relatively heavy; gel performance ...

Solar fuels as generated by nature

7 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Society's energy supply problems could be solved in the future using a model adopted from nature. During photosynthesis, plants, algae and some species of bacteria produce sugars and other energy-rich ...

User comments : 0