UC Davis scientists race to develop airport scanner for Homeland Security
Published Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011
Scanner technology originally developed at UC Davis to test wine in the bottle is being re-engineered to tell shampoo from explosives at airports.
That means travelers could be able to carry soda cans or full-size tubes of toothpaste through security and onto jetliners in the not-too-distant future.
The Department of Homeland Security has taken a keen interest in the project, bankrolling it and putting it on a fast track, scientists say.
“They’d like to get it, the sooner, the better,” said professor Matt Augustine, the lead researcher on the project at UC Davis. “For them, success is they hand you your water bottle back instantaneously and say, ‘Get out of here.’ ”
Augustine looks like a surfer with an unruly mop of blond hair. Earlier this week, he talked excitedly about his efforts in a sprawling basement lab crammed with electronics, powerful magnets and blackboards covered in equations.
He demonstrated a working model – a blocky device of battleship gray attached to a computer. A cylinder inserted between magnets holds water bottles, juice boxes and cans of Red Bull.
As Augustine explained it, the events that led to the development of the airport scanner started about 10 years ago when a graduate student got interested in wine.
Researchers then took an old magnetic resonance imaging device – a smaller version of a hospital MRI – and modified it to examine the contents of wine bottles to see if the wine had turned to vinegar.
In 2006, terrorists carried liquid explosives on board trans-Atlantic airliners.
The news led Augustine’s colleague Joe Broz, a scientist with White House experience, to ask if the wine-scanning technique could be used to determine whether airline passengers were carrying flammable liquids.
Augustine and Broz bought cases of “Two Buck Chuck” wine at Trader Joe’s, emptied the bottles and filled them with various substances, from shampoo to gasoline.
Then they put them in the wine scanner, bombarding the bottles with radio waves to determine the chemicals contained in each bottle.
“It worked,” Augustine said with a grin.
The scientists wrote a proposal to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which responded “very enthusiastically” and eventually funded the project with an initial grant of $800,000.
What the anti-terrorist experts wanted, however, was harder than looking through wine bottles.
“They wanted to be able to look inside a Coke can,” Augustine said.
The problem: High frequency radio waves produce a more precise picture of molecular structure. But only low-frequency radio waves can penetrate metal.
The challenge for Augustine and Broz has been to find a middle ground in which a device can see inside an aluminum can but also tell with a high degree of accuracy what’s inside.
Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and elsewhere are also trying to solve the problem in what has become a friendly competition, Broz said.
The researchers have been working into the wee hours to have a prototype ready by year’s end, he said. They hope to mass produce the scanners and get them into airports within a few years.
Then, Augustine said, security screeners will quickly be able to distinguish a child’s juice box or a tube of Colgate from the “containers that bad guys might want to bring onto an airplane.”
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