Sandia LabNews

Researching new detectors for chemical, biological threats


Ron Manginell and colleagues are developing new miniature pulsed-discharge ionization detectors — mini-PDIDs — like those Ron is holding here. The tiny devices have broadened the scope of chemical targets for Sandia’s microanalytical detection technology to toxic industrial chemicals, biological volatiles, greenhouse gases, and more. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Sandia scientists are thinking small, building on decades of sensor work to invent tiny detectors that can sniff out everything from explosives and biotoxins to smuggled humans.

The military needs to find low concentrations of chemicals, such as those used in roadside bombs or chemical warfare agents, before they hurt anyone, says Ron Manginell (1716). Soldiers often use detectors in less-than-ideal situations, looking for dangerous substances from among a rich miasma of diesel fumes, smoke, and dust. They also carry detectors into the field, where instruments must be portable, rugged, reliable, and easy to use. In addition, inspectors at checkpoints and border crossings that check large numbers of containers lack automated ways to find people or contraband.

In the late 1990s, Sandia developed a simple-to-use handheld chemical detector for the military, the MicroChemLab. Ever since, Sandia has improved such microfluidics- and microelectromechanical (MEMS) systems-based instruments that identify chemicals based on gas chromatography, or GC, and resonator-style instruments such as surface acoustic wave (SAW) detectors.

Detection world needs new instruments

Ron says SAW-based instruments will continue to be extremely important. But the world of detection also needs new instruments that can find compounds such as carbon dioxide, chemical signals unique to humans, or the volatile signatures of pathogens and diseases in livestock and humans.

Ron led a project to develop such a detector and couple it with a GC. Together, they identify vapors by “sniffing” volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The prototype of the new detector, a miniature pulsed-discharge ionization detector, or mini-PDID, is about 1 inch by 1 inch by 2 inches, can be coupled with micro-GCs, and can run for nine hours on a charge of helium.

Experiments have shown the mini-PDID can detect explosives-related compounds, pesticides, and toxic industrial compounds. “These are nasty things,” Ron says. The detector also homes in on signatures of human odors and bacteria, light gases such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, and a broad range of organic compounds.

“We now have new detectors, like the PDID, with higher sensitivity and broader applicability that would integrate well with the SAW and micro-GCs to provide both sensitivity, the ability to detect a few molecules of a given compound, and selectivity, the ability to distinguish compounds from one another,” Ron says. A miniaturized vapor detection unit and subsidiary electronics could fit in a format no larger than a cell phone, he says.

A detector for human cargo

The universal detection capabilities of the mini-PDID are allowing researchers to look at vapor detection of bacteria, an approach aimed at bringing biological and chemical detection into a small, common platform, Ron says. He highlighted the work, funded by Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program, in a presentation at last fall’s International Breath Analysis meeting in Sonoma, Calif. The Journal of Breath Research published a paper by the team in July.

Part of the project demonstrated the possibility of a VOC-based detector for humans.

“People are brought across the border for many reasons, sometimes for a better life, sometimes for malevolent reasons” that could involve drug, weapons, or explosives smuggling, Ron says.

Current commercial detectors to find human cargo are about the size of a large shoebox, minus the electronics to operate them. Thus, Ron’s team saw promise for a miniature vapor-based detector for what he calls “indications of human presence.”

In other words, sweat.

No other animal has one component of human sweat called hexenoic acid. The action of bacteria on sweat excreted by human glands results in that distinct eau de locker room smell — what’s really a byproduct of bacterial metabolism, or a bacterial VOC.

The project proved the miniature detector could find hexenoic acid at the parts-per-billion level.

So Sandia researchers, wondering whether the technique could detect other bacteria, tested it on the VOC signatures of Microbacteria bovis and Microbacteria tuberculosis. M.bovis causes TB in livestock and can cause TB in humans; M.tuberculosis causes TB in humans. The bacteria produce four unusual compounds not made by other bacteria that infect humans, and the mini-PDID approach can detect those markers at the same concentration or comparable to or better than current methods, Ron says.

Sandia, in collaboration with the University of California, Davis, has submitted a proposal to the US Department of Agriculture to use the approach on E.coli in soil and water to see whether it can differentiate between toxin-producing E.coli and more benign varieties, Ron says.

Further development sought

The proof of concept works for biological detection, and Sandia is seeking funds to develop software and mathematics for pattern recognition for specific targets, he says. It will be several years before the technology could be ripe for tech transfer, he says.

The technology also needs engineering innovations, such as a tiny low-volume, high-flow-rate valve that can operate under high pressure, Ron says. In addition, researchers are looking for funds to further develop the mini-PDID and make it even smaller. Ron wants to reduce the housing to the size of a AAA battery, and ultimately to MEMS size — typically devices measuring between 20 micrometers to a millimeter. For comparison, a human hair averages 70 micrometers in diameter.

In general, Sandia’s chemical detection instruments work by collecting and concentrating a sample of air, separating the chemicals using a GC, and finding the targeted ones through selective detection.

Ron likens the GC to a racetrack for chemicals. Compounds in a mixture all enter the race at the same time, but various compounds get to the finish line at different times based on how they interact with the GC. The passage of time also helps indicate what a compound is since compounds separate at different rates, he says.

The microGC system can filter out common interfering agents such as water in the form of humidity, and detected compounds at sub-parts per billion concentrations in 6 seconds to 2 minutes in lab and field tests, Ron says.

Sandia’s microGC system approach is more compact and faster than commercial GC units and can be operated by non-experts. It also eliminates the need for a mass spectrometer, which detects chemicals by measuring the relative concentrations of atoms and molecules. Eliminating a mass spectrometer removes the need for vacuum pumps, which are too big and costly for broad field use.