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Scouting Hidden Danger:CBRN Detectors on the Frontline of Public Safety Ⅰ
a&s International 2011/2/16

Demand for advanced detection technologies remains high, as weapons of mass destruction could result in unaccountable casualties. Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear material detectors are must-have frontline defense tools to stand against all possible threats.

Demand for advanced detection technologies remains high, as weapons of mass destruction could result in unaccountable casualties. Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear material detectors are must-have frontline defense tools to stand against all possible threats.

Two innocent-looking packages were discovered on cargo planes bound from Yemen to the U.S. on Oct. 29, 2010, each containing bombs made with plastic explosives and detonating mechanisms. While no lives were lost, US air travel became stricter than ever. Terrorist demonstrations with weapons of mass destruction show that chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) attacks do not take place on distant battlefields — the modern-day battlefield could hit closer to home.

CBRN detection enables a more timely response to any hazardous material. In the past, handheld detectors were developed based on ion mobility spectrometry (IMS), which remains common today. “Equipment based on IMS provides an indication of the presence of questionable substance; however, it cannot identify and analyze the substance for more information,” said Dieter Rothbacher, MD of Hotzone Solutions.

In recent years, more products are developed based on Fourier transform IR spectrometry (FTIR). “FTIR-based instruments have the ability to analyze substance in both liquid and solid forms, and also give users a good idea of the gas substance in presence,” Rothbacher said. “Also, more analytical instruments come with built-in database library, providing on-spot information to instantly notify and identify a situation.” Presently, detection technology on these devices achieved great improvements in terms of sensitivity and reliability, which leads to improved accuracy rates.

For biological agent detection, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique has been taken out of laboratory settings and ruggedized for handheld biological agent detectors, said Lou Banks, Marketing Manager of Bio-Defense, Idaho Technology. “PCR is a molecular technology that detects trace amounts of pathogen DNA, which drastically enhances its sensitivity level.”

Biological agent detection has benefited from development in matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization- time of flight (MALDI-TOF) techniques. “For identification purposes, PCR remains a favorite, but efforts are put into the development of MALDI-TOF in combination with a mass spectrometer,” said Rutger Gaasbeek,Consultant at IB Consultancy. “Although most of these applications are developed for military purposes, they will slowly find their way to the civilian field, such as the health care sector.”

For chemical agents, enhanced sensing capabilities aim for better detection range and higher sensitivity. “Previously only chemical warfare agent (CWA) capability has been expanded to cover up to 30 toxic industrial or chemical gases,” said Osmo Anttalainen, VP of R&D Solutions at Environics. “In recent years,handheld detectors have become better at detecting a wider range of gases, resulting in better coverage of civil security needs in detection.”


Radiological detectors often fall into two categories: personal-radiation detectors (PRDs) and radioactiveisotope identification devices (RIIDs). “PRDs are used for personal protection as well as basic search capabilities,” said Lester Koga, PM at Morpho Detection. “RIIDs are used for identifying the radioactive isotope to determine the threat level of the source — special nuclear material, medical, industrial or naturally occurring radioactive material.”

To determine if a detected radiation is from a radiotherapy patient or from special nuclear material, accuracy is paramount. “Generally the lower the energy resolution percentage, the more accurate the isotope reading will be, creating fewer false-positive and false-negative readings,” Koga said.

With less than 1 percent energy resolution high-purity germanium (HPGe) is the gold standard material to use, yet it is inoperable at room temperature and needs to be cryogenically cooled. This limits the size, weight and battery life of such detection devices, Koga explained.

New detection materials such as cadmium zinc telluride (CZT) can be used for lighter and more portable devices, without sacrificing accuracy in radiation detection. “With less than 2 percent energy resolution, CZT enables increased probability of detecting and correctly identifying a radioactive isotope when compared to sodium iodide, in a package much more user-centric than HPGe,” Koga said. A barrier to CZT adoption is its higher cost, compared to inexpensive and ubiquitous sodium iodide.

First Line of Defense
Often the basic sensors used in handheld, mobile and stationary detectors are the same, although technologies employed are sometimes simply too large or powerintensive to be considered for portable applications. Significant R&D efforts have been devoted to achieving the goal of creating lighter, longer-lasting portable instruments, and in general instruments, portable and stationary, that simply bring greater capability to CBRN detection. The main differentiators are the user and the purpose the user wishes to achieve by using the device. “CBRN specialists, law enforcement personnel and first responders might all have different missions and purposes when using the detectors, and each situation requires the use of specific equipment for maximum effect,” said Craig Johnson, CEO of Field Forensics.

Depending on what the user is trying to accomplish and what the mission entails, handheld, mobile and stationary detectors are all utilized frequently. The wider the range covered by the instrument, the more costly it would be, Rothbacher said. In terms of software preinstalled in the instrument, minor adjustments and troubleshooting can be completed. In some other instruments, changes cannot be made to the software at all. As of now, third-party instruments and embedded software are not interoperable.

Handheld devices are limited in size, weight and power consumption, while mobile and stationary systems are less affected by these factors for design and optimum performance capability, Anttalainen said. Ease of use and maintenance requirements are also performance differentiators to consider. It should be noted that mobile detectors can be used in a stationary manner, becoming a satellite detection point within a large detection network controlled by a central command center. With sufficient battery power, mobile detectors can last longer than usual when used as a stationary device.


The financial crisis affected the CBRN industry. “Government funding cuts as a result of the recession did affect the procurement habits of some governments around the world, such as the U.S., Europe and Asia,” Rothbacher said. New regional markets were affected less, as emerging countries with rapid economic growth responded positively to sales opportunities.

Investment in R&D was halted by some vendors, which could hamper developing technologies already underway when the recession hit. “Budget cuts do have a significant impact on the development of new sensors, especially in the military environment where much of the low toll-like receptor technologies are currently in development,” Gaasbeek said. “This impact will deepen in the coming years, since many of these research projects tend to run multiple years and in many cases will not be prolonged.”

The recession may not be the main reason for a R&D slowdown. “In the U.S., military requirements and homeland protection cannot be compromised, which may translate to the fact that new R&D initiatives need to be prioritized. However, as a result of the imminent threats posed by terrorists with potential CBRN weapons, the priorities have been transitioned to those identified as immediate, substantial and high targets — supporting the soldiers in missions,” said Monica Heyl, CEO of Monica Heyl and Associates. “These priorities predominantly relate to government funded efforts. From a US government perspective, it remains the intention to continue to develop new technologies and solutions by focusing on better collaboration across organizations, prioritizing efforts in new R&D initiatives and providing the very best tools in the timeliest manner to the soldiers and the US homeland.”

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