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Detecting the CBRN Threat

In 2011, United States Customs and Border Protection seized over $25 million in counterfeit pharmaceuticals. The bureau was aided by field-deployed chemical identification tools that are able to deliver precise information to agency personnel. The same kind of identification equipment provides information on a range of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats to military, law enforcement, customs, border protection, hazmat teams, bomb squads and other first responders around the country and around the world.

The kinds of instruments that are able to identify contraband, as well as explosives or the presence of radiation, have made advances in recent years. New technologies have been developed that are able to identify substances and the presence of artificial radiation with increased accuracy. These technologies are also being made available in user-friendly formats that don’t require expert interpretation of readouts, in increasingly smaller form factors, and at more affordable prices.

Most of these capabilities were developed and later perfected in the aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. In the wake of 9/11, great attention was paid to the vulnerabilities faced by the United States, and other countries, from substances and devices such as radiation-laden dirty bombs that could be brought into the country. As the years have gone by and the pubic perception of these types of threats is low, some wonder whether enough attention is being paid to CBRN threats.

“After 9/11, the U.S. made significant investments to prepare for, prevent, respond to, recover from and mitigate the effects of CBRN threats,” said Aaron Poynton, director of the global safety and security business at Thermo Fisher Scientific. “However, over the past decade government and public attention to CBRN threats has waned due to shifting priorities and interests, and the absence of CBRN attacks to the U.S. homeland.”

“I think we do run the risk of becoming complacent,” said David Cullin, vice president for research and development at FLIR Detection. “I’ve come to think about protection against CBRN like buying insurance. The question is how much insurance you need for the low-probability but high-consequence kind of events. I think the federal government takes these threats very seriously, but there is also the reality of paying for it that they have to face.”

As companies continue to develop and improve CBRN detection and analysis equipment, a number of trends have emerged. “Our users are not chemists or spectrometists,” said Poynton. “It is important to put equipment in their hands that doesn’t require a Ph.D. to use and understand.”

Increasingly, the equipment fielded to counter CBRN threats provides easy to understand and unambiguous results that don’t require subjective interpretations. “A customs agent can look at the equipment and make an instant determination whether to let a person across a border or detain him, whether to let package through or hold it,” said Poynton. “This keeps borders safer and promotes the timely flow of commerce across the borders.”

“We are always looking for ways to make our equipment smaller, faster and cheaper,” said Cullin. “Some of this has to do with the budget constrained times in which we live. But people are also taking a longer view in that they are buying in terms of life cycle costs. We need to see lower prices and also deliver lower back-end costs to customers. When we develop products we have to think not only about performance, but also what has become equally important: how we produce it economically and sell it at a reasonable price point.”

In the area of radiation detection, new technologies have been brought to bear that provide more accurate readings and are able to differentiate between dangerous radiation and levels of radiation that are naturally found in the environment.

“The federal government sponsored the development of a new material that has the ability for gamma detection and neutron measurement,” said Mark Deacon, market development manager for security instruments at Thermo Fisher Scientific’s radiation detection unit. “Up until recently the standard detection material, Helium-3, was distributed free by the federal government but now has become very expensive and rare.” The new material, called CLYC, is a crystal comprised of cesium, lithium, yttrium, and chloride doped with cerium.

CLYC is much more sensitive at detecting radiation and is better at neutron measurement because it is a solid rather than a gas. “This is important,” explained Deacon, “because devices such as suitcase bombs may emit only low levels of radiation that are easy to shield. When dealing with materials like plutonium, neutron detectors are important.”

Detection and analysis instruments have become smaller and easier to use. “Ten or 15 years ago, instruments were bigger and more complex to use. They required spectral interpretations of graphs overlaid on graphs and the user had to determine subjectively what the instrument was saying,” said Poynton.

Advances in computers and microprocessors allow today’s instruments to run much more complex algorithms yielding more precise results. “All of the math is done in the background and the output shows the name of the chemical detected along with the with statistical probability of accuracy,” said Poynton. “At the same time, experts don’t lose the capability to look at the underlying spectral data. But most users are interested in three things: They want to know what has been detected, they want that clearly displayed on the instrument, and they want a list of synonyms, because some substances go by different names.”

In the radiation detection area, instruments that were once carried in backpacks later became handheld devices and are now small enough to fit in a pager-sized device. “These smaller units are so smart, so we can hook up bigger detectors to them,” said Deacon. “As a result, we can cut costs in half and provide an enhanced ability to find radiation.”

When alerting security personnel to presence of radiation, it becomes important to differentiate between the natural radiation that is found everywhere and potentially dangerous sources. Thermo Fisher Scientific’s latest generation of radiation detection instruments is able to do that by assessing the radiation found in a given area and then looking for anomalies. “Many materials emit radiation, but we know it is natural,” said Deacon. “But even a small amount of the wrong stuff will put the picture out of balance. This is a big deal because without that ability the user doesn’t know if what he is looking at represents a threat or not.”

FLIR Detection has been making advances in mass spectrometry and has been developing a product specifically for the aviation security market. Mass spectrometry can analyze and identify materials at the molecular level by ionizing them and subjecting them to the influences of electric and magnetic fields.

“We have been working with the Department of Homeland Security for several years on this,” said Cullin. “We are now getting a detection system for explosives into qualification testing so that it can be used in the aviation security world. The product has to be qualified by the Transportation Security Administration, which has a rigorous set of testing protocols, before it can be put to use.”

FLIR’s work in mass spectrometry has benefited from a number of recent technology advances. “We have been able to miniaturize components,” said Cullin. “Until the last few years we didn’t have the computational capabilities to deal with the calculations involved with mass spectrometry in a small enough package that would make sense. There have also been advancements in vacuum systems that have allowed us to build smaller and more rugged mass spectrometry packages. This allows units to be placed in fielded kinds of environments rather than in laboratory environments, and they can be operated by everyday people rather than experts.”

FLIR markets several lines of sensors that detect a variety of threats, including chemical and biological agents, explosives and radioactive materials. FLIR’s Identifinder R400 is a handheld identification device used to locate, measure and identify sources or contaminations from radiation. The Identifinder R300 is a spectroscopic personal radiation detector in a pager-sized device with detection and identification capabilities. FLIR’s Identifinder R500 is a digital handheld gamma radionuclide identification device.

FLIR provides a mobile chemical analysis capability with the Griffin 460, which is able to detect and identify complex chemical samples through liquid, solid, vapor and direct air sampling. The Fido NXT and X3 are handheld devices that detect homemade and liquid explosives. The company’s Biocaptur line is portable air samplers for biological agents with a disposable collector cartridge that prevents cross contamination.

“Our focus in the near term is to provide these capabilities to the folks who need them in a set of technologies and products that meet their current requirements,” said Cullin.

Thermo Fisher Scientific markets lines of chemical agent analyzers based on two technologies: Raman spectroscopy and FTIR spectroscopy. As a laser-based technology, Raman spectroscopy enables non-contact sampling through sealed containers. But fluorescence is a challenge, and Raman spectroscopy can’t be used to scan dark substances. FTIR spectroscopy identifies substances of any color and is not impacted by fluorescence, but requires contact with the substance.

“Many of our customers buy both Raman and FTIR-based products in order to provide a complete solution,” said Poynton. “Some chemicals perform better with Raman and others with FTIR. For example, FTIR is blinded by water, so a chemical diluted with water will show up as just water when FTIR is used, while the Raman technology can detect chemicals even at small concentrations.” Thermo Fisher Scientific’s TruNarc line, designed for law enforcement, customs, and border protection agencies, is a Raman-based product to support drug investigation and prosecution. The system provides clear results and automatic reports that require no user interpretation.

The company’s FirstDefender and TruDefender lines of products, directed toward the military, hazmat, explosives, customs and border protection markets, include results screens that provide detailed information about the identified substance, including name, chemical number and hazard. Additional information in the onboard library includes synonyms, chemical formulas and hazard guides. A green screen indicates a single match, while a blue screen shows a mixture of chemicals.

The FirstDefender RM and FirstDefender RMX, introduced in 2010, are second-generation Raman instruments that are half the size and weight of their 2005 predecessors. The TruDefender FTi, dating to 2011, is a FTIR spectrometry instrument that adds a wireless capability to the FTIR platform, enabling responders to send results by text message or email from within the hazard zone. A 2013 enhancement to the product allows for better sample control.

“We are constantly looking at ways to improve our algorithms and add items to our library,” said Poynton. “Just a few years ago the library contained only 4,000 or 5,000 substances. Now it has over 11,000. Once or twice a year we do software upgrades that add more chemicals into the library.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific has over 19,000 systems fielded with border agencies and other law enforcement and homeland defense organizations. “We have found that our customers use the systems not only to detect contraband, but also to verify the substances as they have been labeled,” said Poynton. “Discovery of misdeclared items can result in levying additional duties and tariffs.”

FLIR Detection’s strategy for the future is to develop technologies that were once the sole province of high-end markets more ubiquitous. “We are focusing our long-term research at taking sensing technologies and making them at lower costs so that they can be acquired more broadly,” said Cullin. “In the future we may see sensing technologies using communications networks that are available through smartphones.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific is already at work in the radiation detection area, developing apps for use on iPhones as well as Android and BlackBerry devices. “We think the use of smartphones will be good for transmitting data,” said Deacon. “The idea is to give people something simple to work with rather than having them rely on a complex custom system.”

All of these developments are examples of a baseline CBRN capability that the United States did not possess before 9/11. But, Poynton warned, “The U.S must remain steadfast and vigilant in this area. It is well documented that terrorists are attempting to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. They are creative, resourceful and patient. The threats that exist are real and are multigenerational.” ♦

 

Last modified on Tuesday, 02 September 2014 15:07

Additional Info

  • Issue: 3
  • Volume: 6
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