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Ticket to Jail

The recent spate of terrorist attacks on aircraft has prompted scientists to develop new approaches to detect explosive materials carried on board by passengers. Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists are developing a mass spectrometry based instrument to sample an airline passenger's ticket for explosives.

A simple boarding pass could safeguard air travelers if an explosives detection system being developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Mass Spec Analytical is adopted. With the mass spectrometry-based instrument, a passenger's ticket would become a passive sampling device that detects even a billionth of a gram of explosives. The instrument works by sampling air that passes over a ticket as the paper is fed through a scanner and then identifying the chemical composition of the substances in the air. The procedure takes just a few seconds.

"If a person has been in contact with explosives, this instrument would detect it," said Dr. Gary Van Berkel, a researcher in ORNL's Chemical Sciences Division. "Even if the person were wearing protective clothing while handling the explosives, it would still almost certainly detect it."

The advantage of the system is that all passengers thereby avoiding random checks with swabs and other less sophisticated techniques that cause boarding and flight delays.

Van Berkel and collaborators claim to have already performed many tests of the instrument, which is capable of analyzing 1,000 tickets or boarding passes per hour. One of the next steps is to incorporate a simple visual display that identifies the explosive and triggers an audible alarm. Developers also plan to add an automated calibration and threshold setting that would further prevent false alarms. No special training would be required for operators of the final product, Van Berkel said.

The research is being undertaken with Mass Spec Analytical of Bristol, England. In the short term, plans call for further testing of the instrument and gaining acceptance for field testing in the United States, Canada and England.

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