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Researchers from the Technion have developed a unique device that can identify improvised explosives, the kind commonly used by terrorist organizations. The pen-like device detects the presence of explosives material using chemical reaction and can be used by law enforcement and airport security to test suspected objects.

Prof. Ehud Keinan, Dean of the Technions Faculty of Chemistry, and his colleagues have developed a new device called the Peroxide Explosive Tester (PET), which resembles a three-color ballpoint pen. The device releases a chemical mixture that changes color upon interaction with the suspected material and has been developed as a result of an important scientific discovery made earlier by the team.    

Prof. Ehud Keinan

Prof. Keinan discovered that the explosive known as triacetone-triperoxide (TATP), which is used extensively by many terrorist organizations around the world, is very different from other conventional explosives in that it does not release heat during the explosion. Instead, it explodes by rapid decomposition of every solid-state molecule to four gas-phase molecules. This rare phenomenon, scientifically known as Entropic Explosion, is similar to the rapid reaction that produces gas in the safety air-bags of an automobile when involved in a collision. TATP is used by many terrorist organizations around the world for two reasons: it is easy to prepare and very difficult to detect. In fact, TATP cannot be detected by any conventional method (i.e., dogs or metal detectors) but could be easily prepared in any clandestine lab, using readily available chemicals. In the last few years there has been a dramatic increase in the use of TATP explosives by terrorists around the world. Many suicide bombers in Israel, as well as the infamous Muslim shoe-bomber Richard Reid, have used TATP explosives. Security experts around the world have long been fearful of a powerful explosive that can easily be manufactured and smuggled onboard planes and past security checkpoints without any chance of detection.

The PET device offers the first chance to detect TATP in the field. Understanding the limitations of the PET, which needs to be applied to the suspected object or person, Prof. Keinan and his team are also currently working on a new sensor for detecting explosives from a distance.

Iddo Genuth

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