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SIU scientist working on bomb detection technology for military

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SIU scientist working on bomb detection technology for military
By: Carly O'Keefe

CARBONDALE, Ill. - Every day we hear of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan losing their lives or limbs due to roadside bombs. Currently, a Southern Illinois University scientist and students are working on a way for the military, police and airport security to detect explosives before its too late.

Associate Professor Ling Zang's explosive detection project was recently awarded a $600,000 boost from the National Science Foundation to help further develop explosive detecting technology involving nano-fibers. Nano-fibers are microscopic threads that to the naked eye look like no more than a smudge on a slide. But put the slide under the microscope, and it's a woven fabric of molecules.

"Our eyes do not have that high of resolution to image it," said Zang. "A particle is only 30 nanometers in diameter. A nanometer is millions of times smaller than an inch. So it's really tiny."

Zang hopes to bunch millions or even billions of the tiny fibers together to make a microscopic net that would trap vapor particles in the air that would indicate explosives were nearby. "If you have explosive TNT buried underground, you can measure the vapor above ground," said Zang.

But how do you know if you've caught invisible vapors in a microscopic net?? According to Zang, the millions of tiny fibers he'll use to detect explosives are made up of florescent molecules. That, when placed under an ultraviolet light, glow. But when vapor particles from an explosive like TNT become ensnared in those microscopic fibers, the fibers are blocked from the UV light and no longer glow. That would be the indicator to a soldier or airport security officer that there are explosives are in the immediate area. "The detector in the device should be fast enough to detect a suicide bomber before he's close enough," said Zang.

Zang and his colleagues have not yet developed an actual device to put this technology into the hands of folks on the front lines, but he's hopeful this project can eventually partner with military scientists to make for more portable, accessible and efficient explosive detection.

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