By Dr. Chris Petty, co-founder and VP of Business Development at 908 Devices
The list of potential explosive threats is much greater and more varied than ever before. Extremist groups across the world continue to find new ways to develop improvised explosive devices (IEDs) using creative and often unexpected deployment methods. These evolving threats have led to a rapid movement towards the development of new technology that enhances situational awareness and enables rapid, actionable intelligence for civilian users, first responders, and military teams at the point of need.
DEMAND FOR NEW TECHNOLOGIES
The use of conventional and unconventional IEDs represents a growing issue in modern conflicts, making it more critical than ever to employ tools in the field that support both pre-detonation operational needs; allowing for rapid identification and neutralisation of threats as well as vital post-detonation technical intelligence gathering. This capability ultimately permits a better understanding of how IEDs are being developed and possibly identify threat network patterns.
While it is anticipated that the number of IEDs deployed today will be fewer than in recent years, a report from the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) stated more than 1,300 IED attacks per month occurred in 2010 in Afghanistan alone – a figure which grew to 16,554 for the year in 2011. A contributing factor to the anticipated decline of IED attacks is the rising cost of materials – however, this has motivated extremists to find new, more inventive ways to develop homemade explosive devices using a number of unconventional and unexpected materials in their production. This calls attention to the need for new field-deployed technology capable of detecting a much broader array of non-standard explosive compounds and suspicious substances than previously necessary.
Future developments in detector technology will also improve forensic intelligence capabilities for sensitive site exploitation and enable rapid and focused incident processing. Expanding capabilities to identify unconventional materials that make up newly engineered homemade explosive devices provides further insight and protection from future threats.
CURRENT TRENDS AND TECHNOLOGY
Presently, there is a range of technology used to identify explosive threats including Raman spectroscopy, ampli-fying fluorescence polymer detection (AFP), Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) and FTIR spectroscopy. While traditionally used in laboratories, the recent adoption of portable and handheld analysers that are rugged enough to meet military standards and reliable enough to be trusted in the field have had a significant impact on response time and detection capabilities. Although these technologies fulfill their purposes, they all have limitations and no single technique or approach can presently handle the wide range of chemical threats field personnel are faced with today. This means that users have to rely on a number of different technologies to provide them with the information they need quickly and accurately.
Raman spectroscopy identifies unknown chemicals by recording how their unique molecular bonds scatter incident laser light into distinct frequencies. With the advantages of being highly selective – Raman can differentiate tens of thousands of different compounds – and being able to identifying compounds through glass or translucent materials, Raman systems are in widespread use to identify explosives. However, Raman does have limitations: it cannot typically analyse darkly coloured compounds, as the system’s laser will cause heating and potentially combustion. In addition, Raman is rarely suitable for identifying trace levels of chemicals – it is considered a ‘bulk’ technique and typically requires a large amount of sample in order to make a measurement.
While having technically different approaches, both AFP and IMS have some similar limitations. IMS is an instrumental analytical method that separates ionised molecules according to size, mass and geometry. AFP utilises fluorescent polymers that quench or ‘turn-off’ on contact with target compounds. Unlike Raman, both techniques are extremely sensitive and handheld products are widely deployed by the military and in airports as a ‘trace’ technique. Small, robust and relatively simple, IMS systems have been successfully used to give troops early warning of the presence of potentially harmful chemicals and explosives. The fundamental limitation of these technologies however, is that they can only detect a very limited number of chemicals. This lack of selectivity combined with high sensitivity also leads to high levels of false positive measurements. These alarms for threats that are not actually present can also have serious consequences.
The incidence of false positive alarms in existing devices can be affected by interference from commonly present materials such as diesel fumes and colognes. A real-world illustration occurred at JFK Airport in August 2013 where two workers were hospitalised after opening a package that initial reports said tested positive for VX nerve gas. Subsequent analysis confirmed that the package actually contained leaking ‘beauty products’. False positive readings such as these can occur due to the use of conventional technology that is susceptible to being affected by these interferents. The immediate impact of such false positives can be significant to personnel and the public – false readings ultimately erode operator confidence in the analysis provided.
Until recently, one form of technology that has not been available in a truly handheld form factor is mass spectrometry (MS). Commonly referred to as the “gold standard” technique for analytical testing, MS has traditionally been confined to use in a laboratory. This is a result of instruments size, fragility, expense and complexity (these systems typically require highly trained experts for operation and maintenance). In the past 20 years the development of person-portable or ‘luggable’ mass spectrometry instruments gave field operators some limited exposure to the powerful capabilities of MS; however, present systems remain relatively large, fragile, expensive and complex to use.
Military, CST teams and first responders require devices that are sufficiently rugged to withstand extreme conditions, are easily portable and are able to identify a wide range of threats at trace levels, while providing detailed, actionable intelligence when it is needed most.
When designed to be truly field-portable however, the MS technique offers unparalleled capabilities for CBRNE and forensic applications. MS uniquely offers both selectivity and sensitivity – differentiating between thousands of different molecules in trace quantities to the part-per-billion level.
In an attempt to keep a low profile and remain undetected, many producers of improvised explosive devices frequently move their manufacturing location. While in some cases field personnel discover an abundance of evidence including precursor materials, and possibly even the final product, quickly enough to interrogate it with bulk analysers such as Raman or FTIR, more often than not evidence is too scarce rendering existing technologies of limited use. The ability to analyse trace residue would dramatically enhance the amount and quality of information available to investigators and technology like MS provides answers when only trace amounts of evidence are available. This capability far exceeds the level of ‘presumption’ that is currently required with existing technology and elevates the information provided to a ‘confirmatory’, level, which enables personnel to undertake action with confidence based on high-quality, accurate analysis without unnecessary delays.
While the speed and fidelity with which MS tools can identify target threats in a field environment is highly beneficial, it is their broader capabilities to recognise a wide array of threats and precursors that provide improved access to actionable intelligence. Few existing tools enable investigators to conclusively identify the range of threats originating from a clandestine lab manufacturing explosives, drugs and even chemical weapons. MS provides unprecedented speed and precision that will enable this currently ‘unseen’ chemical evidence to be considered and analysed enabling first responder teams to address threats decisively with real-time intelligence.
In addition, the selectivity offered by MS can provide valuable low susceptibility to false positive readings – essentially the ability to clearly differentiate compounds reduces the risk that an innocuous interferent will be confused with a target threat. New handheld developments in MS, such as the M908TM developed by Boston, MA based 908 Devices, Inc., is the first and only handheld device utilising high-pressure mass spectrometryTM (HPMS). The M908 provides rapid explosive material detection and identification to expand the capabilities of today’s forces.
Extremist groups continue to develop explosive devices that are increasingly hard to detect. Techniques are often used to disguise the technology and hazardous materials, designing and engineering such that they emit only trace amounts of vapour and consequently make them even more difficult to detect using existing conventional technology. As a result, there is an undisputed need to equip first responders with modern, advanced analytical capabilities that provide actionable intelligence in the context of these ever increasing threats to society.
Some confidence that the industry is responding to this urgent call to action is provided by the introduction of powerful and cutting-edge handheld mass spectrometry devices designed to add greater detection capabilities at the point of need and provide instant situational awareness for faster resolution. New devices, such as the M908, are advancing rapidly in order to meet the demand of the threats of today, and helping to anticipate those of tomorrow. ■
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Petty is a co-founder and VP of Business Development at 908 Devices. With over 24 years’ experience in the analytical instrumentation industry, Chris has been responsible for the development of multiple successful analytical platforms for both lab and field use.
To learn more about M908 and the advanced technology developments brought to you by the team at 908 Devices visit www.908devices.com
This article first appeared in the Counter-IED Report, Spring/Summer 2014 edition published by Delta Business Media.