Spray-on nanomaterial can neutralize IEDs

Posted by Emma Woollacott

It sounds too good to be true - but US scientists have developed a substance that they say can be sprayed onto suspected explosives to detect and completely neutralize them.

"This stuff is going to be used anywhere terrorist explosives are used, including battlefields, airports, and subways," says study leader Allen Apblett, a chemist at Oklahoma State University. "It’s going to save lives."

The material is a type of ink made of metallic oxide nanoparticles, which changes color - from dark blue to pale yellow or clear - in the presence of explosives. It also changes from a metallic conductor to a non-conducting material, making electronic sensing possible.

Soldiers or firefighters could wear the sensors as badges on their uniforms or use them as paper-based test strips, and they could also be incorporated into stationary monitoring devices ar airports, subways and other facilities.

And the stuff can even neutralize explosives. Firefighters and bomb squad technicians could spray the ink onto suspicious packages until the color change indicates that they're no longer a threat, Apblett says.

The ink could be particularly useful in dealing with peroxide-based explosives, which are easy to make and set off - it's the type used by 'shoe bomber' Richard Reid in 2002.

In particular, it could be used to detect triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, sometimes used in suicide vests and improvised explosive devices. Currently, there's no effective way to detect this.

The scientists say thee material can detect TATP vapors at levels as low as a 50 parts per million, within 30 seconds.  And, in lab studies, the scientists showed that they could add the material to TATP or HMTD and make them nonexplosive.

"This does a really good job of neutralizing terrorists’ explosives," said Apblett. "I’m excited to see it moving from the lab to the real world."

Apblett and his colleagues have founded a company called Xplosafe to develop and market the material. They hope to see it used in airports in as little as a year.