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TAU nano-sensor could identify explosives 3,000 times more accurately than a dog's nose

June 30, 2014

A sensor that can pick up the scent of molecules from explosives better than a trained dog's nose has been developed by Tel Aviv University scientists.

The nanotechnology sensor is arousing much interest among the security forces, as it could be used in operations to locate and identify explosives at the airports, the entrance to shopping malls, railway stations and other public places instead of existing, less accurate technologies.

The development has just been published in the Nature Communications, a prestigious, multidisciplinary journal that reports on high-quality research in many fields.

The TAU team, headed by Prof. Fernando Patolsky of the school of physics, said existing sensors to find explosives are expensive, bulky and require a long time and experts to interpret the findings. But the new sensor is small, inexpensive and mobile and can identify explosives efficiently and with great accuracy, said Patolsky.

The sensor is comprised of a chip on which nano-fibers from silicon are installed. The fibers form a very sensitive electrical device and are coated with a layer of 144 chemical sensors. When a single molecule of explosives comes into contact with the sensors, it binds with them, and each one reacts simultaneously and separately.

The sensor also mathematically analyzes the molecular reaction of the various sensors to the material -- and all of this is done rapidly and accurately. Even dogs cannot compete with it, said Patolsky. "This is exactly what happens to a dog's nose or tongue. Our sensor is a kind of artificial nose for molecules of explosives, but it is 3,000 times more sensitive than a dog's."

Usually, the more accurate the sensor, the less selective it is, but the sensors on the TAU device are selective up to a concentration of one per quadrillion. This is unprecedented, said the professor. It also identifies explosive molecules from large distances. Each sensor is the size of a laptop, and this is only a working model. "We are already working on building a smaller one the size of an I-phone and more mobile."

The discovery is based on a previous sensor that Patolsky and his team built three years ago to identify substances used in biological and chemical warfare. A private company named Tracense, which has partnered with TAU, invested millions of dollars in developing the patented working model, which is already being examined and tested by local security forces including the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet).

In the future, said Patolsky, the sensor could be used by forces in the field and even replace existing explosive detectors. "It could also function on pilotless aerial vehicles, he said.

A lab that makes explosives produces enough molecules of TNT that float in the air that there is a cloud of it. The pilotless aircraft can suck in the air over the building with the lab inside and identify the explosives, said Patolsky, whose team members are also helping him develop sensors for civilian uses. "On the basis of the security model, we are developing sensors for other uses such as some to detect narcotics," he concluded.

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Source: Jerusalem Post (Israel)

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