Aug. 17--The technology exists to detect liquid explosives -- at least three Massachusetts companies have created such tools -- but the federal government says it's still not ready to deploy the devices in the nation's airports.
The Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency in charge of airport security, is testing products from American Science and Engineering Inc. of Billerica; Ahura Corp. of Wilmington; and General Dielectric Inc. of Acton.
AS&E's SmartCheck system uses low-powered X-rays to scan passengers for hidden items like bottles of liquid, while Ahura and General Dielectric use lasers or microwaves respectively, to identify the contents of a sealed bottle. The TSA is also testing seven other devices made by companies in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. But TSA spokeswoman Amy Kudwa says that none are ready to be deployed because of reliability and feasibility issues.
But after this month's foiled terrorist plot to smuggle liquid explosives aboard jumbo jets, the government may not have the luxury to wait. Charles Slepian, founder of the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center, a transportation security firm in New York, said that technology for detecting explosives in carry-on bags is well understood and readily available, but that the US Department of Homeland Security is reluctant to spend the large sums needed to deploy it at hundreds of airports.
"Now they're embarrassed because they have to say that we have nothing in place," said Slepian. "Shame on us. We've had the science for years."
Since the early 1990s, AS&E has made SmartCheck, a $50,000 low-intensity X-ray scanner that can spot a bottle of organic compounds in a passenger's pocket.
But is the liquid an explosive, or a batch of baby formula? Ahura says its $30,000 handheld laser scanner, the First Defender, can answer the question. The device can "see" through glass or plastic bottles and identify any of 2,500 different chemical compounds in about 15 seconds. The FBI and New York City police already use the Ahura system, which went on sale about a year ago.
Clint Seward of General Dielectric said the company developed a system called the BCT 2000 -- which stands for bottle contents detector -- that can determine if a liquid is primarily water-based -- as most household items are -- or whether it consists of other substances that might warrant further inspection. The detector is about the size of a laptop computer and costs just under $20,000. It uses very low-power microwaves to probe the liquid. The unit is ready to deploy, Seward said.
The TSA has not outfitted airports with the devices, in part, because officials have to prioritize where they spend limited dollars, according to Frank Cilluffo, former special assistant to President Bush for homeland security and now director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute.
Joe Reiss, AS&E's vice president of marketing, said his company's SmartCheck systems are used at the White House and the US Supreme Court. But they're not widely used in airport security. TSA agreed last year to conduct tests of the system. But Reiss said those tests had not yet begun.
Ahura chief executive Douglas Kahn told an almost identical story. "They purchased a unit from us about a year ago," Kahn said of the TSA, adding that US officials still aren't prepared to deploy the Ahura system.
During a tour of the Ahura factory on Tuesday, Democratic US Representative John Tierney of Salem said that he has repeatedly urged the TSA to speed up its evaluation of the technology. "We've been upset that it's been such slow going," Tierney said.
TSA spokeswoman Kudwa said the agency has been evaluating the First Defender system in US airports since October, along with the General Dielectric system, but the devices have not always proven reliable. "We are seeing high false alarm rates for the solutions we are testing right now," she said.
Ahura spokeswoman Kerstin Barr said that First Defender has an accuracy rate of about 95 percent.
Kudwa also noted that many passengers carry several containers of fluid in carry-on bags. The First Defender would require about 15 seconds to identify the contents in each, resulting in a slowdown at security checkpoints.
Ahura's director of operations Mark Spillane agreed that using the First Defender on every passenger is impractical. Instead, it would be used on people who had already been tabbed as suspicious. "Somehow, the security people have got to identify the threat," Spillane said.
Kudwa said AS&E's SmartCheck is "something we're a little closer to testing operationally." But there are questions about public acceptance of the system because some passengers may worry about the health effects of an X-ray scanner. But both AS&E and the TSA say the radiation emitted by SmartCheck is roughly equal to the increased radiation exposure a person receives from flying at 20,000 feet for about five minutes.
The newest generation of SmartCheck has been modified to cope with another concern -modesty. Early versions generated a very revealing image of the passenger's anatomy. AS&E software engineers came up with a program that covers up the contours of passengers' bodies, making them resemble chalk outlines of a person. Only the objects carried can be clearly seen.
Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report.