Idaho “Nose” Explosive Detection: Grant Helps Develop Electronic Sniffer

Written by Amanda Cairo

MOSCOW, Idaho – University of Idaho researchers are nose-deep in sniffing out explosive vapors thanks to a recent $900,000 three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Defense; the funding supports research into the detection of explosives.

Idaho’s Patrick Hrdlicka, associate professor of bio-organic chemistry, and David McIlroy, professor of physics, will join Vladimir Dobrokhotov, assistant professor of physics at Western Kentucky University, to develop a device that will serve as an electronic sniffer to detect airborne explosive material.

Under the grant, roughly half the funds are shared with Western Kentucky, but Hrdlicka said the grant really is an Idaho success story: Dobrokhotov earned his doctorate from the University of Idaho and worked in Idaho’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program prior to his Kentucky appointment.

As part of the research, Mcllroy will place insulating and conducting coatings on silica nanosprings, which offer a large surface area with a small footprint. These then will be covered with gold nano islands that Hrdlicka will functionalize with organic molecules that act as small fingers to grab explosive vapors from the air.

“By playing with different molecules, we can detect different explosive vapors,” said Hrdlicka. “The challenge is, of course, to find the right combination – but we have some ideas.”

An added challenge of the experiment: because the vapors are airborne, and therefore only present in minute amounts, the need for hyper-sensitivity is all that more important.

Hrdlicka and McIlroy will build the sensors in Idaho and ship them off to Dobrokhotov in Kentucky, who will test them with different explosive vapors and offer feedback on the effectiveness of explosive trapping. Hrdlicka and McIlroy will then take that information to refine the sensors. Dobrokhotov’s task is to design a scheme for extracting an electrical signal and the best way to sample the vapors.

The technology being developed in Idaho could lead to improved airport safety for detecting explosives, improved military and civilian safety by detecting landmines in current and abandoned war zones, and development of better anti-terror practices.

McIlroy explained that when someone makes an explosive, it leaves behind residue, molecules that an electronic sniffer can pick up – much like a bomb-sniffing dog, without having the dog or trainer make contact with residue or taking swabs to test.

So, for the next three years, Idaho researchers will work on the sniffer – mixing basic science and nanotechnology to improve safety at home and abroad.

“We expect to see greater developments down the road that this research will be the basis for,” said Hrdlicka.

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