Tech that Identifies Hazardous Chemicals from a Safe Distance is Coming

  • 26 April 2018 11:49:53 AM
  • By Sam Mire

A series of recent attacks in the recent news cycle has served as high-profile reminders of the danger that weaponized chemicals pose to their intended targets. But the reality which is not as frequently reported is that non-targets in the vicinity of weaponized chemicals at the time of deployment as well as identification and cleanup workers often fall prey to the same effects that the hazardous material inflicts upon its intended victim.

We still aren’t at a stage where the safe identification of hazardous chemical agents is a guarantee – far from it. But U.S. intelligence agencies, and likely other intelligence agencies spanning the globe have been seeking a solution that would allow for the detection and recognition of specific dangerous chemicals from a distance of up to 30 meters, or nearly 100 feet. In the United States, the Standoff ILluminator for Measuring Absorbance and Reflectance Infrared Light Signatures (SILMARILS) program, managed by Kristy DeWitt, has been at the forefront of finding such a solution. Under the umbrella of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), the project will conclude in 2021 with a specific goal in sight, and that objective is a fundamental change in how we investigate and potentially prevent chemical attacks and drug-related activities.

According to IARPA, the development of a portable system which accounts for real-world factors in the chemical identification process is the goal of the project. Utilizing active infrared spectroscopy – the analysis of infrared light interacting with a molecule – the system will be able to detect trace amounts of chemical residue on surfaces at a 30 meter range. The system will be state of the art, incorporating power that suits the limits of battery life, an eye-safe infrared light, a rapid scan rate, and the capacity to account for variable factors including surface-adsorbed clutter, varying substrates, differences in temperature, humidity, and background light.

Potential, non-guaranteed uses for this detection system include scanning human hands for residue from explosives and narcotics at airport security, specifically identifying the dreaded mysterious ‘white powder’, screening stationary vehicle cargo and car trunks for evidence of chemical agent or narcotics transport, detecting explosive fingerprint reside on a car door, and examining the suspected area of a chemical release from a safe distance. Each of these instances reveal how current systems of detection and identification would be improved both in terms of rapidity and safety.

Even if this cutting-edge approach to detecting and diagnosing different chemical agents, from potentially lethal explosives or gasses to narcotics, is not ready by the SILMARILS project’s closure in 2021, expect that such an apparatus will be deployable in the not-too-distant future.

Sam Mire

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