Detecting Equipment for Liquid Explosives Limited

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News of a terrorist plot centering on the use of liquid explosives has everyone asking if there is a way to screen for such weapons.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Airports are still reeling from the effects of yesterday's arrests in an alleged plot to use homemade liquid explosives to blow up planes over the Atlantic. Current screening devices have a hard time detecting dangerous liquids. That's one reason why officials have temporarily banned drinks and gels in carry-on luggage.

But scientists are working on updating screening technologies, as NPR's Nell Boyce reports.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

After September 11th, if you tried to get on a plane with a cup of coffee, you might have been asked to take a sip to prove that it wasn't some deadly explosive. But there are companies out there that would like to sell airports a more high-tech test.

Here's one promotional video from a company called ID Detection Systems.

(Soundbite of video)

ANNOUNCER: This individual is attempting to check through what appears to be a sealed bottle of vodka. But is it vodka? The Idex 1000 can tell - and guess what? It's lighter fluid.

BOYCE: Sealed bottles do pose a security problem, and it's not a new one. After a Korean jetliner went down in 1987, investigators said bombers had set off a bottle of explosive liquid. That same year, German airport officials recognized a wanted man.

Mr. CLINT SEWARD (General Dielectrics): They stopped him and they looked at four bottles of wine he was carrying, and the bottles of wine had a liquid explosive in them.

BOYCE: Clint Seward works for a company called General Dielectrics near Boston. He says those events sparked interest in new screening technologies. The device Stewart developed relies on a tiny burst of microwaves. Water-based drinks like coffee respond differently than liquids used in explosives.

Mr. SEWARD: You actually take the bottle out yourself, put it on the device, the operator pushes three buttons and it takes three seconds.

BOYCE: But this device can't see through metal, and it won't tell you exactly what a liquid is. Other devices take different approaches. One shoots a laser through glass or clear plastic. The liquid scatters the light, and each liquid creates a unique pattern.

Janelle Anthone says her company, New Mexico-based Senspex, sold one of these detectors to the Transportation Security Administration last year, but she hasn't gotten much feedback.

Ms. JANELLE ANTHONE (Senspex): I don't know if it's a lack of funding or organization that's holding them back. I have a feeling that it has to do more with financing.

BOYCE: A TSA spokesperson said she didn't know how much the agency has spent on developing a screening device for liquids. Although after yesterday's events, she was trying to find out.

One government report last year said that money problems have caused delays. It said TSA had been forced to divert of one year's entire R&D budget to other uses, like paying for personnel. Still, several of these devices have been tested in airports.

Robin Zimmer works at ID Detection Systems in Knoxville. He says real world assessments are essential.

Mr. ROBIN ZIMMER (ID Detection Systems): There is an awful lot to getting a technology tested thoroughly so you know it's going to work and it's reliable, and then getting it implemented in various checkpoints around the country and around the world is a big job.

BOYCE: News of this latest plot may speed up work on these machines, but not everyone is excited about adding yet another device to the screening line. Bruce Schneier(ph) is a technology expert who is consulted on airport security.

Mr. BRUCE SCHNEIER (Technology Expert): But if we spend, I don't know - I'm making this number up - $50 million putting in detection equipment to detect explosives in drinks, and terrorists decide to put explosives in solids next time, we've wasted our money.

BOYCE: And Schneier points out that this plot was foiled not by a new device, but by old-fashioned police work.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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