Electronic Laboratory Notebooks: Using Technology to Build Better Bomb Detectors

electronic laboratory notebooks
Bomb detection is an essential component of security. Electronic laboratory notebooks can ensure the best detection systems are developed and delivered to those who need them. Image Source: Flickr user The U.S. Army

Jim McCormick is a convicted con man who deceived national armies and police forces into purchasing his fake bomb detector, the ADE 651. McCormick claimed the detector worked by being especially sensitive to the “molecular frequency of explosives,”1 which would lead a telescopic radio aerial on the instrument to swing toward the direction of the bomb.

What proves especially disturbing is that even after McCormick’s conviction, Pakistan’s Airport Security, Beirut’s security guards, and other security personnel have continued to use the fake machine that some estimate is responsible for thousands of deaths. Why haven’t security organizations ditched the ADE 651 for other (more effective) detection systems? And how can researchers improve the accuracy of bomb detectors going forward?

Silicon Nanowires and Other Real Explosive Detectors

Explosive detectors exist in many different varieties.2 Automated colorimeters, some of the oldest types of explosive detectors, work by applying a chemical reagent to an unknown sample and observing if the color changes. Other examples include mechanical scent detection, which uses a technology known as ion mobility spectrometry or gas chromatography, and of course X-ray machines.

Silicon nanowires, however, are considered to be one of the most sensitive detection methods and researchers are working hard to use them in commercial systems.3 In one iteration of this technology, a liquid or vapor with the target explosive is passed over the surface of a chip with thousands of silicon nanowire sensing elements, which then induces a change in the electrical properties of the nanowire. Further developing this technology could prove instrumental in ensuring the safety of security personnel across the world.

Using Electronic Laboratory Notebooks to Improve Silicon Nanowires

To improve the development and use of silicon nanowires, researchers who work in bomb detection should consider electronic laboratory notebooks or ELNs. Such technology has been used to improve workers’ efficiency and their ability to collaborate with people in different departments or locations across multinational companies. Applying this technology toward bomb detector development would enable researchers to harness the power of this novel software to better protect security personnel and others who rely on their protection.

Much of the science behind silicon nanowires and their improvement is still unknown or contested, which means electronic laboratory notebooks could help researchers resolve fundamental questions about this technology. ELNs could also help determine the best construction for nanowires, to improve their portability and mobility, as well as their ability to detect a wide range of bomb materials. Here are a couple other areas where electronic laboratory notebooks could benefit bomb detection work:

The synthesis of nanowires: There is a variety of different ways to synthesize silicon nanowires. There are high-temperature methods, low-temperature methods, or supercritical fluid-based and solution-based growth methods (among many others) that might affect the properties of nanowires. Using electronic laboratory notebooks would enable researchers to collect this material in a single location, to better determine the properties of silicon nanowires constructed with various synthesis techniques.

Catalyst materials: There is a variety of catalysts and reaction components that can be used to identify bomb elements. Gold is a popular catalyst, but alternatives include a silver-like catalyst, low silicon-solubility catalysts and silicide-forming catalysts.4 Importantly, the type of catalyst one uses might depend on the region of the globe, since the ambient temperature could have an important effect on the catalyst’s characteristics. Using an electronic laboratory notebook to record how various detector characteristics can change according to the environment is essential for creating machines tailored to a specific environment (and with a low failure rate).

Though silicon nanowires are only one type of bomb detector, it is one of the most promising developments, and it could truly improve the safety of airports and security checkpoints across the globe. The use of ELNs can support researchers in their attempts to construct these improved detection methods. To determine how BIOVIA’s electronic laboratory notebooks could be used to support your work, wherever you are, please contact us today.

  1. “Why are countries still using the fake bomb detectors sold by a convicted British conman?,” June 9, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2014/jun/09/fake-bomb-detectors-british-conman-pakistan-karachi-airport
  2. “Explosive detection,” July 8, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Explosive_detection
  3. “Using Silicon Nanowires to Detect Explosives,” August 7, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mep1BK_zyTg
  4. “Growth, Thermodynamics, and Electrical Properties of Silicon Nanowires,” January 13, 2010, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/cr900141g?journalCode=chreay

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