LANL shows off liquid detection system

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By Roger Snodgrass

Help for the hassled airline traveler was on display Tuesday at the Sunport in Albuquerque.


One of the most popular technological hits this year for Los Alamos National Laboratory was the prospect of a detector that could dissolve an annoying security bottleneck at airports around the world, having to do with the difficulty of screening potentially dangerous liquids.

A team of researchers, led by Bob Kraus, saw the possibility for repurposing a new kind of magnetic resonance imaging system, based on a fraction of the magnetism used in a typical hospital diagnostic instrument.

MagViz, as the system is called, is a magnetic visualization tool with low enough intensity to be usable in a public space, without causing everybody’s keys and metal cases to fly through the air by attraction.

Hopefully, it will also be accurate and versatile enough to make travel a little easier for billions of future air passengers.

“The purpose of the demonstration is to show that the MagViz system can differentiate between a safe material, something you want to take on board a plane and something you would not want to have on board the plane,” Kraus said in a phone call just before the demonstration.

Admiral Jay Cohen, former chief of Naval research and current Department of Homeland Security undersecretary of science and technology, flew in for the event. DHS has supported the project with a $5 million grant, according to a lab announcement. DHS is hoping “the final project will be able to scan bags at a speed similar to the current security checkpoint X-ray machines.”

Earlier this year, Kraus recalled a eureka moment when the researchers realized the larger implications of their project.

 “If we can tell the difference between V-8 juice and Coca-Cola, which are mostly water,” Kraus wondered, “why can’t we tell the difference between shampoo and a threat substance.”

The laboratory announcement stated that the instrument could now reliably identify some 50 liquids by their chemical fingerprints.

“That’s one of the beauties of this technology,” project leader Michelle Espy said. “We can add different threats as we become aware of them.”

Kraus, who is now the deputy director for laboratory research and development, described the system Tuesday, as non-invasive.

“We’re able to do it in a way that doesn’t touch, sample or sniff, but rather uses magnetic imaging, like examining tissues in a brain,” he said.

The device was inspired by an incident at London’s Heathrow airport in March 2006, in which a terrorist tried to carry hydrogen peroxide on board an airplane. The substance was nearly indistinguishable from water but could have been mixed into an explosive substance.

The attempt was thwarted, but the response was the now familiar 3-1-1 rule that requires passengers to carry any 3-ounce liquid containers in 1 clear zip-top quart-sized plastic bag, with 1 quart-sized bag permitted per passenger.

According to the Transportation Security Administration, the precautionary procedure is now in effect at checkpoints for more than 70 percent of the air passengers in the world.

If all goes well, the laboratory expects the technology could be commercialized and installed in airports by 2012.

Another phase would enable examination in luggage.

“We’re not in the business of commercializing it,” Kraus said.  “We’re not involved in that,” he said, although the lab will be involved in assessing the commercial projects.

“The important thing,” he said, “ is understanding the underlying science, refining the underlying signatures so we can understand any material whether we have seen it or not.”

Other prospective users for the system include military medics who would be able to do quick battlefield diagnostics and hospitals in the developing world that lack the space or funds for conventional MRI.