Let’s face it: the theatrical security procedures at airports aren’t going away any time soon. However, they might just get more tolerable if a team of Israeli researchers bring a new, extremely sensitive bomb detection chip to an inspection line near you. The prototype sniffs for explosives by using groups of nano-scale transistors that react to tiny electrical changes when certain chemicals pass by. And we do mean tiny — the chip can raise alarms if there are just a few molecules found out of 1,000 trillion. For those not keeping score, previous techniques will ‘only’ raise a red flag in the molecules per billion range.
When luggage makes its merry way through the airport, bomb-sniffing scanners have to check it out for explosives. Now, scientists in Israel say they have developed a small electronic chip that could be a million times more sensitive than our bulky scanners. To detect explosives, airport security and the military usually rely on machines that use ion mobility spectrometry, a technique that identifies molecules by how fast they move through an electric field. That can detect traces of explosives at concentrations of, according to one report, parts per billion. This new chip works at parts per quadrillion (which is a million times better if all these -illions are blurring together). This small chip is inspired by how our own olfactory systems work. We have a finite number of smell receptors in our noses but can distinguish between a seemingly infinite number of smells based on how different receptors differentially bind the molecule. Likewise, the chip has eight different nano-sized chemical receptors. Depending on how molecules bind each of these eight receptors, the chip can tell whether they’re innocent or indicative of a bomb.