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Lab News -- August 18, 2006

August 18, 2006

LabNews 08/18/2006PDF (650KB)

Sandia experts field flurry of media calls in wake of busted British terror plot

By Michael Padilla

Last week’s foiled terrorist attack aimed at blowing up as many as 10 airplanes over the Atlantic was stopped short by British authorities.

The attackers apparently planned to bring down the planes by smuggling liquid chemical explosives disguised as drinks onto the aircraft. Reports said the intention was to mix liquids and assemble bombs in flight with various components.

Immediately after news of the foiled terror plot broke, Sandians John Parmeter and Kevin Linker, experts in the general area of explosives detection and members of Contraband Detection Technologies Dept. 6418, spent a hectic couple of days fielding questions from members of the national and local media. Among news outlets they talked to were the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, The Associated Press, New Scientist, Albuquerque Tribune, KOB-TV Channel 4, and inquiries from CNN, Nightline, and Wired magazine, among others.

John says he doesn’t know what specific materials were to be used. He says there are materials that are not explosive individually, but when mixed with other materials become explosive.

“ANFO (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil) is a well known example,” he says. “This has been used in numerous car bombs in the UK.”

Ammonium nitrate by itself is not considered an explosive, but when mixed with fuel oil it becomes an effective explosive.

“The mixture is normally solid, but there are ways you could probably make it more like a liquid slurry,” he says. “There are some materials made of two components, where at least one component is a liquid, that would not be considered explosives separately but would make an explosive if mixed.”

He says “liquid explosive” is a catch-all term and can include a variety of chemicals such as nitroglycerin and related compounds, and ammonium nitrate slurries.

Some explosives can be used in both liquid and solid forms. Pure nitroglycerin is a liquid at room temperature, but Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite is a widely used solid explosive based on nitroglycerin, he says.

“With both liquids and solids there are things one could do to make the explosive more or less stable — i.e., more or less sensitive to detonation,” John says.

John works alongside other Sandians whose primary work is in trace explosives detection system development and test and evaluation of explosive detectors. Kevin and others in the department have been involved in the development of trace explosives detection portals for personnel screening, as well as handheld explosive detection systems.

Detection of liquid and solid explosives can in many cases be done using the same types of trace chemical sensors, he says. Furthermore, if an explosive is made by combining two components that are not explosives themselves, it does not follow that a trace sensor used for explosives detection could not detect the individual components. “If a sensor detects a mixture it will normally detect at least one of the components,” he says.

One generic difference between liquid and solid explosives is obvious — liquid explosives require some sort of container. “There might be some issues with corrosion, but there would be containers you could put liquid explosives in,” he says.

A variety of detectors are used at airports. Metal detectors that do not detect explosives might find bombs that have metal components. X-ray scanners are used to image the contents of carry-on luggage. Trace detection systems are used to swipe laptops and other personal electronic equipment, and personnel portals have been tested or used on a trial basis at some airports.

Ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) is a widely used trace analytical technique for detecting explosives. It is used to detect molecules or molecular fragments after they are ionized. The mobilities of these ions in an applied electric field are then measured. One of the requirements is that the molecules to be detected must form a stable ion of some sort. IMS can detect drugs, environmental pollutants, and other types of compounds in addition to explosives.

“Trace explosive detectors like ion mobility spectrometers are increasingly being used in airports,” John says. “While the decisions on what sorts of detection to require are up to the Transportation Security Administration, I certainly expect that trace detection technology will become part of the standard suite of screening tools in the future.” -- Michael Padilla

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Sandia develops contaminant warning systems for EPA to monitor water systems in real time

By Chris Burroughs

Sandia researchers are working with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), University of Cincinnati, and Argonne National Laboratory to develop contaminant warning systems that can monitor municipal water systems to determine quickly when and where contamination occurs.

It’s all part of the EPA’s Threat Ensemble Vulnerability Assessment (TEVA) program to counter threats against water systems. The program uses a suite of software tools that can simulate threats and identify vulnerabilities in drinking water systems, measure potential public health impacts, and evaluate mitigation and response strategies.

The EPA became particularly concerned about potential water system contamination after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York. US water systems consist of large networks of storage tanks, valves, and pipes that transport clean water to customers over vast areas. By the very nature of their designs, they provide multiple points for potential contamination — either from natural or manmade sources.

“Our involvement dates back about three years ago when the EPA became aware of some LDRD [internally funded Laboratory Directed Research and Development program] research we were doing to model threat assessments to water systems,” says Sean McKenna (6115), project researcher. “We started working with the agency [EPA] in March 2003.”

During the ensuing three years, the Sandia team created world-class software to address water security issues. The Sandia software can determine where to place sensors to help design a contaminant warning system. The software can also determine when and where a contamination event happens, track changes, and determine when the event is over.

“Through careful adaptation of classical algorithms, we are able to solve sensor placement problems on networks 100 times larger than those previously cited in the water security literature,” says Jon Berry (1415), who works on sensor placement methods for the project. “Our team recognized and exploited mathematical structure that hadn’t been associated with water security before.”

Bill Hart (1415), project lead, says the Sandia software “helped the EPA meet several internal milestones over the past year,” including developing a contaminant incident timeline for the EPA’s WaterSentinel program and working with a large city water utility to determine the best locations for sensor placement. The WaterSentinel Program is being developed in partnership with select cities and laboratories in response to a Homeland Security Presidential Directive that charges the EPA to develop surveillance and monitoring systems to provide early detection of water contamination.

The EPA will test Sandia’s event detection methods later this summer at a large water system.

“These tests [that the EPA will conduct] will assess Sandia’s event detection methods so that we can understand how to respond more intelligently to contaminations as they occur,” Bill says.

Sandia’s event detection methods have been specifically tailored to use a variety of affordable, off-the-shelf devices commonly used by water utilities to monitor water quality. -- Chris Burroughs

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Sandia biofuels initiative pushes forward with Monsanto CRADA; will stretch Labsí bioanalytical imaging and analysis

By Mike Janes

Sandia and Monsanto Company have announced a three-year, $1.5 million cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) that is expected to play a role in both organizations’ interests in biology and bio- energy. The partnership is aimed at aligning Sandia’s capabilities in bio-analytical imaging and analysis with Monsanto’s research in developing new seed-based products for farmers, including corn products that may be able to produce more ethanol per bushel.

“A strategic relationship with Monsanto makes sense on many levels and will bolster our collective long-term objectives in bioenergy and bio-fuels,” says Terry Michalske, director of Biological and Energy Sciences Center 8300.

Recent biotechnology endeavors at Sandia have focused on developing and applying biotechnologies to identify early signs of infectious diseases through protein interactions and biomarkers at the single cell and whole organism scale. Sandia also is planning a key role in a multi-lab/university effort to bring a DOE-funded bio-research facility to the San Francisco Bay area. DOE’s Office of Science reissued a solicitation earlier this month for one or more such facilities, with a focus expected to be on cost-effective, biologically based renewable energy sources to reduce US dependence on fossil fuels.

The Monsanto CRADA will initially focus on hyperspectral fluorescence imaging and spectral analysis. Under the partnership, researchers from the two organizations will apply Sandia’s hyperspectral imaging and multivariate image analysis technology to aid in the study of plant tissue samples of interest to Monsanto. Hyperspectral imaging is an advanced scanning technology that provides significantly more information than other approaches, necessitating the use of sophisticated computational analysis.

The research is expected to enhance current crop analytical technologies, offering an additional technological resource to support Monsanto’s robust product discovery engine and development pipeline. Monsanto’s crop analytics research program has recently played a role in discovering new seed-based products for farmers, including corn hybrids that offer more ethanol-output per bushel and soybean varieties that produce healthier oils for consumers.

“Seeking out new and innovative scientific tools is an important part of how we bring forward new technologies for the farmer,” says Pradip Das, director of crop analytics for Monsanto. “This partnership provides Monsanto with a new opportunity to further bolster our existing crop analytics program, offering our researchers another way to better understand genomic profiles for seed and trait development.”

Sandia researchers in New Mexico will investigate, develop, and further advance the Labs’ hyperspectral imaging and multivariate data analysis methods and capabilities for agricultural product discovery and development applications.

Terry says researchers at the Combustion Research Facility could eventually benefit from the CRADA by gaining experience with agricultural samples that have bioenergy/biofuel applications and uses.

Ancillary research focusing on the photosynthetic properties of various plants and microbes, for instance, will add to the Lab’s growing expertise in understanding the conversion of sunlight to sugars, relevant not only to the production of new fuels from biomass but also essential to the global carbon cycle and carbon sequestration.

Monsanto Company is a leading global provider of technology-based solutions and agricultural products that improve farm productivity and food quality. For more information on Monsanto and the company’s products, see -- Mike Janes

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