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Patrick Hrdlicka looking at "No see" explosives

Idaho “Nose” Explosive Detection

Written by Amanda Cairo

University of Idaho researchers are nose-deep in sniffing out explosive vapors thanks to a recent $900,000 three-year grant from the Department of Defense for 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.

Through groundwork provided by the University’s Biological Applications of Nanotechnology (BANTech) program and the Idaho Office of Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research EPSCoR, McIlroy, Hrdlicka and Dobrokhotov won the fundamental science grant from the Department of Defense to merge nanotechnology, organic chemistry and electronics to detect explosives.

“This grant is a real return for the University, BANTech and EPSCoR,” says Hrdlicka. “These programs continue to pay off.”

Under the grant, roughly half the funds are shared with Western Kentucky, but Hrdlicka says the grant really is an Idaho success story: Dobrokhotov earned his doctoral degree with the University of Idaho and worked in the EPSCoR program prior to his Kentucky appointment. As part of the experiment, Mcllroy will place insulating and conducting coatings on silica nanosprings, which offer a large surface area with a small footprint. These will then 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,” says Hrdlicka. “The challenge is, of course, to find the right combination — but we have some ideas.” An added challenge of the experiment is 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 be building the sensors in Idaho and shipping 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.

This 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 explains 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 be working 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,” says Hrdlicka.