PNNL’s vapor detection technology can sniff out explosives, drugs in seconds

This week, the country stopped to remember the events that took place 18 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. The tragedy sparked an increase in efforts to improve security at airports and venues around the country, and some of those efforts are still ongoing at Richland’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

It was after 9/11 that current PNNL researcher Robert Ewing was presented with the question of how airport security could be improved upon when it came to detecting explosives.

“He thought, ‘honestly I don’t know,’ and of course as a scientist that answer doesn’t sit well,” said PNNL scientist Elizabeth Denis, who works under Ewing.

Fast forward a couple decades, and under Ewing’s leadership, PNNL researchers have developed a new vapor detection technology. When it comes an explosive or drug, Denis said PNNL’s technology can “sniff it from the air” in a matter of seconds.

Compare that to current airport security methods, where a swipe has to be taken to detect any explosives or drugs. That physical sample then has to be heated and analyzed, a process that is overall time-consuming and intrusive.

“Instead of having a random sampling where you have to step out of line, this would just be incorporated into the line with the scanners that are already there,” said Denis. “So it would take less time but be safer as well.”

Dogs have also been used to sniff out explosives, but they need special training and rest.

PNNL’s technology is altogether faster, more effective and non-contact. The technology works by sucking an air sample into a tube. Once inside the tube, the sample undergoes ionization – molecules are converted into electrically-charged ions in order to be detected by a mass spectrometer.

One issue that researchers came across – current mass spectrometers can usually detect parts per million or billion, but most explosives have a concentration at parts per trillion or quadrillion. Denis said PNNL’s technology can detect ten parts per quadrillion.

“It’s equivalent to finding one needle among all the trees in Washington state,” said Denis.

PNNL’s technology also increased the reaction time for the ionization process, from milliseconds to 2-3 seconds, allowing for more sensitive detection.

Another recent development – the PNNL technology can now detect multiple compounds at one time using a split tube.

Currently, the vapor detection technology can detect vapors from drugs like methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine along with explosives like TNT and RDX.

The goal is for the tool to eventually be implemented into airport security. Denis said it could also be used in mail sorting facilities, cargo containers and border crossings.

So far, the researching team has two patents on the invention and another is in the works. The technology hasn’t yet been picked up for use by an outside company.