Chemical Threat Detection Goes Portable

New technology units appearing on the scene take chemical detection from pipe dream to prominence in security systems


Portable chemical and explosives threat detection “sniffing” is no longer just a dream for law enforcement and security directors. This technology, formerly the realm of sci-fi, has become a reality as companies have entered the market with technologies aimed for the growing homeland security sector.

One such company, Isonics Corporation, based out of Columbia, Md., made a splash today with the launch of two new products targeting this emerging market.

At its manufacturing facility in Duluth, Ga., Isonics unveiled two IMS detection systems to a mixed audience of law enforcement, business journalists, mass transit leaders and homeland security professionals. The level of interest from the LEO community, which often leads a trickle-down effect to corporate security applications, was strong, and clearly depicts how many agencies are looking for these types of threat detection systems.

What it does

To detect a chemical threat, the IMS technology, properly known as ion mobility spectrometry, captures particles from the air and then “ionizes” the particles and sends them into what’s called a “drift cell”, an area of electric charge. The particles move through the drift cell towards an electrode which then measures the particles' electric impulses. A measurement taken from the particle reaching the electrode tells the particle’s weight and charge properties, which are then used to determine what type of particle it is -- whether you have on your hands a benign chemical or a gaseous release from homemade explosives.

The IMS devices from Isonics have a library of 60 chemicals (such as Sarin gas, Tabun, mustard gas, etc.) and homemade explosives (such as TATP and TCAP), and they search the air content at the parts per billion range for these chemicals. Being able to detect the chemicals at the parts per billion level, says Isonics President Boris Rubizhevsky, means that these gases can be detected well before a lethal level is reached, giving responders time to take precautions and implement security measures.

The handheld and portable versions of the Isonics’ IMS system can be programmed to recognize 16 of those 60 most common chemical and homemade explosives threats, and according to Rubizhevsky, the systems were designed to detect the kinds of lethal materials that terrorists can actually get their hands upon. While he admits that there certainly are more than 60 chemical threats, Rubizhevsky says that they had to pick the most probable threats, and then let users choose 16 top threats of which they are most concerned.

But Isonics’ Vice President of Sales and Marketing Dennis Koehler is quick to point out that the system isn't static, Each device includes a USB connection that allows for users to update the threat profiles if a new chemical threat appears on the scene as a likely agent, or to change the list of 16 chemicals and homemade explosives that the device is set to detect.

What is perhaps unique about the Isonics units is that the technology has truly come down to a size where it can be easily handled. The units can be held and used with one hand while the user is wearing a thick, multi-layer hazards suit. Not only are the IMS units thumb-controllable while using a protective glove, but the display screens are readable while wearing shields that explosives ordinance detachments (EOD teams) would wear. The portable model, he notes, is ideal for installation in a facility's air ducts, or even in roving uses such as with law enforcement patrol vehicles.

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