Homeland Defense Science and Technology is Highlighted in Science

3/24/2003 - 26-03r
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Drs. Richard Colton and John Russell, scientists in NRL's Chemistry Division, recently were asked to write a perspective for Science magazine [Science 299, 1324 (2003)] that highlights some technology advances related to homeland security. The article features research from different labs across the country, including efforts at NRL. Their article grew out of sessions they organized at the annual AVS International Symposium in November 2002. The symposium covered the areas of protection, decontamination, and detection science and technology.


In the areas of prevention and protection, military personnel can be protected with gear such as gas masks, chemical and biological hazard suits, and protective creams. There are also vaccines that can be used for protection. However, it is unlikely that the general population will ever be outfitted this way because of the training and costs involved. However, one alternative is to place protection and monitoring systems in public areas.

Dr. Allen Garroway and co-workers at NRL have developed the nuclear quadrupole resonance (NQR) detector, which can detect bulk explosives in luggage, briefcases, bulk mail, and large vehicles. The NQR is currently being evaluated in demonstration programs in a few airports and other facilities in the United States.

Another detection technique for explosives is ion mobility spectrometry (IMS), which detects samples based on the rates of movement of their ionized vapors through an oppositely flowing drift gas. IMS is proving to be effective for detecting explosives when used to screen passengers, baggage, and cargo in airports and other transportation centers.

In the area of protecting buildings, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency has demonstrated the concept of a "smart building" where the air-handling system can prevent chemical and biological agents from being spread through the air by sealing off parts of the building.

Another way that buildings can be protected is by retrofitting them with columns and windows that can withstand a blast. The area of the Pentagon that was struck by the aircraft on September 11, 2001, had undergone this type of retrofitting, which resulted in fewer casualties than if it had not been done.

Dr. Jay Boris and co-workers at NRL have been using CT Analyst, to provide accurate, instantaneous, 3D predictions of the transport of hazardous agents in urban settings.


For years, liquid bleach has been commonly used for cleaning up lab benches in biological labs and countertops in kitchens. However, there are some situations where bleach cannot be used. Today, there are two new materials under development that are as effective as bleach, but are nontoxic and more friendly to the environment. One material, Sandia decon foam, is under development at the Sandia National Laboratory. It contains surfactants, hydrotropes, mild oxidants, water-soluble polymer, and fatty alcohols - some of the basic ingredients found in hair conditioners or toothpaste.

At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, researchers have developed a gel that inhibits the germination of spores. This gel can be applied so that it clings to walls and ceilings, just like paint. Researchers are also working on an aerosol form of the gel that might be used inside ventilation systems, air ducts, machinery, and other confined spaces.

Scientists are still struggling with the question "how clean is clean enough?" in determining the best methods and materials for decontamination. Researchers are working on standards for cleanup and developing risk-informed decision-making models for first responders and cleanup crews.


Researchers who work with sensors are developing a variety of new sensing methods related to homeland security. Dr. Lloyd Whitman and his co-workers at NRL are using magnetic labeling and microarrays to detect biomolecules and pathogens. The sensor uses magnetic beads to probe for target biomolecules that are bound to receptor-patterned surfaces. The beads are positioned atop tiny wires that can detect changes in the magnetic field when DNA of interest binds to the probe. The sensor can be used to detect a variety of pathogens, with a focus on detecting biological warfare agents. Researchers at Tufts University are also working on a sensor that consists of thousands of tiny optical fibers that can detect DNA of interest. Their sensor is being used to detect both chemical and biological agents.

In another area of sensor research, scientists at the University of California, San Diego, are developing "smart dust" that can detect chemical and biological contaminants. The tiny silicon particles are carved into nanostructures that are porous like a sponge. When the "smart dust" comes in contact with a chemical vapor, it absorbs the vapor changing the way that the dust reflects light when illuminated by a laser beam. This "smart dust" has already been successful at detecting toxic gases in laboratory testing. Some of the dust is designed to detect specific compounds, while other dust will glow for entire classes of compounds.

The counterterrorism technologies that are being tested today draw heavily from past research. And as scientists look to meeting future homeland security needs, they will continue to draw upon basic research. The AVS Symposium revealed that there are numerous R&D opportunities and more work to be done. Drs. Colton and Russell concluded, "Inspired research from individual scientists and engineers today will lay the foundation of tomorrow's enabling counterterrorism technologies."

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