Rapid chemistry when it matters most

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By Kirsten Peters

The last time I went to Nevada, I stood on the edge of an enormous open-pit mine at noon. The whistle blew. Then the pit erupted in explosive power enough to make the Earth rumble.

“I always like to watch it,” said the geologist giving me the tour. “It looks like the rocks down there just get ‘fluffy’ when they are blasted apart.”

We had visited the floor of the great pit, picking up rocks, squinting at them through hand-lenses and hammering on them. The strong Nevada wind was blowing all day and by the end of it all I was filthy, to say the least.

Although I don’t know for sure, if I had gone directly from the mine to an airport, I might not have been able to board a commercial plane. The reason is that some airports employ “sniffers”  or dogs that can detect explosives, even in trace amounts.  

Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of sniffers. First, there are the type with wet noses you can train with dog-treats to signal the presence of a wide range of materials, from drugs to explosives to produce.

Second, there are sniffers that are man-made devices that are also exquisitely good at detecting just a few particles of various materials for which they are designed and calibrated.

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