Better bomb-sniffing technology with new detector material

November 4, 2014
Ling Zang, a University of Utah professor of materials science and engineering, holds a prototype detector that uses a new type of carbon nanotube material for use in handheld scanners to detect explosives, toxic chemicals and illegal drugs. Zang and colleagues developed the new material, which will make such scanners quicker and more sensitive than today's standard detection devices. Ling's spinoff company, Vaporsens, plans to produce commercial versions of the new kind of scanner early next year. Credit: Dan Hixon, University of Utah College of Engineering.

University of Utah engineers have developed a new type of carbon nanotube material for handheld sensors that will be quicker and better at sniffing out explosives, deadly gases and illegal drugs.

A carbon nanotube is a cylindrical material that is a hexagonal or six-sided array of carbon atoms rolled up into a tube. Carbon nanotubes are known for their strength and and are used in products from baseball bats and other sports equipment to lithium-ion batteries and touchscreen computer displays.

Vaporsens, a university spin-off company, plans to build a prototype handheld sensor by year's end and produce the first commercial scanners early next year, says co-founder Ling Zang, a professor of materials science and engineering and senior author of a study of the published online Nov. 4 in the journal Advanced Materials.

The new kind of nanotubes also could lead to that can be rolled up and stored or even "painted" on clothing such as a jacket, he adds.

Zang and his team found a way to break up bundles of the carbon nanotubes with a polymer and then deposit a microscopic amount on electrodes in a prototype handheld scanner that can detect such as sarin or chlorine, or explosives such as TNT.

When the sensor detects molecules from an explosive, deadly gas or drugs such as methamphetamine, they alter the electrical current through the nanotube materials, signaling the presence of any of those substances, Zang says.

University of Utah materials scientists and engineers shown here developed a new kind of carbon nanotube material for use in the next generation of scanning devices to detects explosives, toxic chemicals and illegal drugs. Clockwise from background: Professor Ling Zang, doctoral student Ben Bunes, doctoral student Yaqaiong Zhang and postdoctoral fellow Miao Xu. Credit: Dan Hixon, University of Utah College of Engineering.

"You can apply voltage between the electrodes and monitor the current through the nanotube," says Zang, a professor with USTAR, the Utah Science Technology and Research economic development initiative. "If you have explosives or toxic chemicals caught by the nanotube, you will see an increase or decrease in the current."

By modifying the surface of the nanotubes with a polymer, the material can be tuned to detect any of more than a dozen explosives, including homemade bombs, and about two-dozen different toxic gases, says Zang. The technology also can be applied to existing detectors or airport scanners used to sense explosives or chemical threats.

Zang says scanners with the new technology "could be used by the military, police, first responders and private industry focused on public safety."

Unlike the today's detectors, which analyze the spectra of ionized molecules of explosives and chemicals, the Utah technology has four advantages:

Explore further: Nano-engineering enhances charge transport, promises more efficient future solar cells

Related Stories

New nanomaterial introduced into electrical machines

October 2, 2014

Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland has constructed the world's first prototype electrical motor using carbon nanotube yarn in the motor windings. The new technology may significantly enhance the performance.

Scientists develop force sensor from carbon nanotubes

June 30, 2014

A group of researchers from Russia, Belarus and Spain, including Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology professor Yury Lozovik, have developed a microscopic force sensor based on carbon nanotubes. The device is described ...

Densest array of carbon nanotubes grown to date

September 20, 2013

Carbon nanotubes' outstanding mechanical, electrical and thermal properties make them an alluring material to electronics manufacturers. However, until recently scientists believed that growing the high density of tiny graphene ...

Recommended for you

Nano-decoy lures human influenza A virus to its doom

October 25, 2016

To infect its victims, influenza A heads for the lungs, where it latches onto sialic acid on the surface of cells. So researchers created the perfect decoy: A carefully constructed spherical nanoparticle coated in sialic ...

New method increases energy density in lithium batteries

October 24, 2016

Yuan Yang, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Columbia Engineering, has developed a new method to increase the energy density of lithium (Li-ion) batteries. He has built a trilayer structure that ...

Nanofiber coating prevents infections of prosthetic joints

October 24, 2016

In a proof-of-concept study with mice, scientists at The Johns Hopkins University show that a novel coating they made with antibiotic-releasing nanofibers has the potential to better prevent at least some serious bacterial ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.