Building a better bomb sniffer

Handheld device detects an explosive that is easy to make but hard to detect

10:18am, November 5, 2010

A handheld device that sniffs out the same powerful explosive employed by the would-be shoe bomber may be coming soon to an airport near you. Chemists have developed a sensor that detects minute amounts of TATP, an explosive favored by terrorists because it is easy to make and difficult to detect.

The new sensor consists of a postage stamp–sized array of dyes that change color when they react with certain compounds. When air containing triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, is drawn toward the sensor, it passes over a chemical catalyst. Some of the TATP in the air reacts with the catalyst and the resulting mixture hits the dyes. The ensuing chemical reactions yield a specific color pattern that is discernable within minutes, researchers report in the Nov. 10 Journal of the American Chemical Society.

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