New scanner aims to make liquids on planes safer

October 14, 2010 By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN , Associated Press Writer
Stephen Surko, program manager of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, explains during a demonstration in Albuquerque, N.M., on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010, the workings of a new machine developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory that can detect whether a passenger is carrying liquid explosives. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

The latest airport security technology being developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory could open the door for airline passengers to bring their soft drinks and full-size shampoo bottles on board again.

Homeland security officials put the latest generation of the bottled liquid scanner to the test Wednesday during a demonstration at Albuquerque's international airport. Everything from bottled water and champagne to shampoo and pink liquid laxatives were scanned to make sure explosives weren't hiding inside.

The device, about the size of a small refrigerator, uses to read the liquids' , even when the substances are in metal containers. Within 15 seconds, a light on top of the simple-looking metal box flashes red or green, depending on whether there's danger.

The device is so sensitive it can tell the difference between red and white wine, and between different types of soda.

"What we're doing is really looking for the real dangers, like liquid homemade explosives," said Stephen Surko, program manager of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency. "We're just real excited at the progress we're making."

The technology is still a few years from being deployed in the nation's airports, where fears of liquid explosives have stopped passengers from bringing more than small amounts of lotions and other toiletries in their carry-on bags. Surko said the lab will have to partner with a manufacturer, and the machines will have to go through testing and certification.

With the bottled liquid scanner, Surko said Transportation Security Administration officers would be able to quickly check the liquids that are allowed in carry-on luggage. If the technology is successfully implemented, it may eliminate the need for passengers to stuff all their toiletry bottles - each no larger than 3.4 ounces - into a single quart-sized plastic bag.

Travelers had gotten used to being scanned, swabbed and patted down since the 9/11 attacks, but it was an alleged plot to blow up 10 trans-Atlantic airliners with liquid bombs in 2006 that prompted the U.S. to clamp down on liquids.

The restrictions have inconvenienced passengers and resulted in longer lines, but officials at the demonstration acknowledged they have yet to achieve what they call a full measure of security.

Several passengers flying out of Albuquerque got a sneak peak of the new technology as they were passing through a security checkpoint. Most said they would feel better if the liquids allowed on a plane could be scanned, but they also hoped that the technology would some day allow them to take their drinks along.

Barbara Riegelsberger of Cleveland, who travels several times a year, said she has become accustomed to the hassles of packing her shampoo and leaving behind her water bottle.

"I'm willing to do what I need to do to be safe," she said.

Tomas Hora, a balloon pilot from Germany who was in Albuquerque for an international balloon event, doubted whether the new technology would make things safer.

"It won't make a difference," said Hora, who was traveling with his wife and young child. "I think if somebody wants to do harm to an airplane, he can do harm no matter the security you do here at the beginning."

Federal officials are hoping otherwise. They have already spent more than $14 million developing the liquid scanners, and the Obama administration has committed tens of millions of dollars to deploy more state-of-the-art equipment to U.S. airports, such as body-imaging scanners and chemical analysis machines that check for explosives in medically necessary liquids like prescription drugs.

Over the last two years, researchers have been able to make the bottled liquid scanner about 90 percent smaller and six times faster. The goal is to make it even smaller so it can fit beside other equipment at airport checkpoints.

Los Alamos scientist Michelle Espy said she knows what it's like to be in a checkpoint and have her young daughter's bottle taken away.

"This would be a very great solution, a quick solution," she said. "Obviously, the end goal is to be able to seamlessly, without slowing anything down, just let people take their liquids on."

Explore further: Good liquid, bad liquid (Video)


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not rated yet Oct 14, 2010
Actually, liquid explosives are so unstable (nitroglycerine is a good example) that it would be good to encourage terrorists to use them- in many cases it would result in a crater where the terrorist was packing his stuff. As for aerosol bombs -forget it. Military aerosol bombs are big, which helps with getting the right air/fuel mixture across a big volume. Let the terrorists waste their time with making such bombs.
not rated yet Oct 14, 2010
If the technology is based on Magnetic Resonance, metal containers will seriously disturb the acquisition of the signals and spectra. Take care, never go with a pace-maker or metal prostheses into a MR-scanner.
not rated yet Oct 14, 2010
"Actually, liquid explosives are so unstable" the idea has been that attackers would carry on at least two coumpounds that would be mixed in the lavoratory.

Speaking of which, they need a scanner that people sit on that can sniff their rectums to detect the nitrogen or other traces that would indicate the prescence of plastic explosive and detonator having been secreted away, BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!!!

You think the reaction to shoe bombers and underwear bombers and times square bombers has been bad, just wait until the SUPPOSITORY BOMBER strikes!
not rated yet Oct 14, 2010
Thank god, this is just what we need! Every airport should be required by law to purchase 30 of these at $250,000 a piece. Then, they should hire a bunch of minimum wage workers to man them. We can only be safe if we throw a lot of money at the problem in the form of technology. Also, the more things beep or flash some lights to show they're working, that would be even better.

This is absurd. If terrorists want to bring down planes, they *will*. All of these devices are just a facade. They're a way to make it *look* like we're secure. They're not there to stop anyone - they're there to make the people in line think that they're being protected.

A better model can be found in Israel - who face daily threats.


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