U of U engineers develop new bomb-sniffing technology

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University of Utah materials scientists and engineers shown here developed a new kind of carbon nanotube material for use in the next generation of scanning devices to detects explosives, toxic chemicals and illegal drugs. Clockwise from background: Professor Ling Zang, doctoral student Ben Bunes, doctoral student Yaqaiong Zhang and postdoctoral fellow Miao Xu. Photo Credit: Dan Hixon, University of Utah College of Engineering

University of Utah materials scientists and engineers shown here developed a new kind of carbon nanotube material for use in the next generation of scanning devices to detects explosives, toxic chemicals and illegal drugs. Clockwise from background: Professor Ling Zang, doctoral student Ben Bunes, doctoral student Yaqaiong Zhang and postdoctoral fellow Miao Xu.
Photo Credit: Dan Hixon, University of Utah College of Engineering

SALT LAKE CITY- University of Utah engineers have developed new technology that is said to be better at sniffing out explosives, deadly gases or illegal drugs than anything of its kind.

Officials published the research on the technology Tuesday in the journal, Advanced Materials.

The research team combined a carbon nanotube with a polymer to create a thin film that can sense anything from toxic gases like chlorine to explosives like TNT.

Ling Zang, a University of Utah professor of materials science and engineering, holds a prototype detector that uses a new type of carbon nanotube material for use in handheld scanners to detect explosives, toxic chemicals and illegal drugs. Zang and colleagues developed the new material, which will make such scanners quicker and more sensitive than today’s standard detection devices. Ling’s spinoff company, Vaporsens, plans to produce commercial versions of the new kind of scanner early next year. Photo Credit: Dan Hixon, University of Utah College of Engineering

Ling Zang, a University of Utah professor of materials science and engineering, holds a prototype detector that uses a new type of carbon nanotube material for use in handheld scanners to detect explosives, toxic chemicals and illegal drugs. Zang and colleagues developed the new material, which will make such scanners quicker and more sensitive than today’s standard detection devices. Ling’s spinoff company, Vaporsens, plans to produce commercial versions of the new kind of scanner early next year.
Photo Credit: Dan Hixon, University of Utah College of Engineering

“By modifying the surface of the nanotubes with a polymer, the material can be tuned to detect any of more than a dozen explosives, including homemade bombs, and about two-dozen different toxic gases,” Ling Zang said, senior author of the study and a professor of materials science and engineering. “The technology also can be applied to existing detectors or airport scanners used to sense explosives or chemical threats.”

Researchers say the material works by changing its electrical current when it detects explosives, gases or illegal drugs.

According to the U of U, when combined with sensors, the material makes the sensors detect toxic substances faster and more accurately.

Zang said scanners with the new technology “could be used by the military, police, first responders and private industry focused in public safety.”

Zang is a co-founder of a company called Vaporsens, which plans to build a prototype hand-held sensor by the year’s end and produce the first commercial scanners by early next year.

In addition to being capable of providing military combat forces, police units and airport security guards with groundbreaking bomb-sniffing technology, the Utah carbon-nanotube concept has four advantages: it is more sensitive than any other technology of its kind, it is faster and more accurate, it has a faster response time and it is cost-effective because the total amount of the material used is microscopic.

The research project was funded by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and NASA.

Zang conducted the research with Ben Bunes, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering, postdoctoral fellow Miao Xu and doctoral student Yaqaiong Zhang.

MORE: See the full study from the U of U