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Researchers developing portable device to detect explosives and chemical warfare agents

New Mexico State University chemistry Professor Joseph Wang is helping to develop a palm-sized device for detecting chemical and explosive weapons.



New Mexico State University chemistry Professor Joseph Wang, left, assisted here by junior biochemistry major Scott Spillman of El Paso, is working on development of a palm-sized device for detecting chemical and explosive weapons. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

i-terrorism tool will give first responders a quick way to check for the presence of explosives and nerve agents, Wang said.


"With this hand-held, user-friendly device, they will be able to do rapid screening in five to 10 seconds," he said. "If they get an alarm, they can switch to detailed analysis. This takes a minute or two. It will tell the level and identity of the substances."

With that information, first responders will be able to quickly make decisions regarding barricading, evacuating or decontaminating a site and other precautions.

The research involves teams of scientists at the University of California at Riverside, Oklahoma State University, the Naval Research Laboratory and New Mexico State. It is funded by a $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice through the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism.

Wang and Ashok Mulchandani of UC Riverside's department of chemical and environmental engineering are the project's principal investigators.

The project makes use of the same microanalyzer "lab-on-a-chip" technology that Wang has applied to a variety of purposes over the past 10 years. He developed a portable device to screen for toxic lead in the blood, for instance, and contributed to the GlucoWatch, a wristwatch-like blood glucose monitor for diabetics.

The proposal for developing a "field portable chip-based anti-terrorism microanalyzer" was submitted before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Work on the project will begin this summer and Wang expects a prototype to be ready in about two years.

The hand-held sensor "will enable transporting the entire forensic laboratory to the sample source, and will offer significant advantages in terms of speed, efficiency, cost, small samples, and automation," a project summary states. "Accordingly, this powerful detection technology should have an enormous impact on the way chemical warfare agents and explosives are monitored and how pre- and post-analyses are carried out."

This is not the first time microanalyzer technology has been seen as a potential anti-terrorism tool. Following the bombing of the USS Cole at a port in Yemen in 2000, Wang received a grant from the Navy to work on a similar device for detecting explosives in sea water. That research is ongoing.

The device will rely on a multi-channel microchip with parallel assays for the different classes of threat agent, along with the corresponding sample collection and processing.

Taking the lab to the source not only cuts down on the time involved but also improves reliability, Wang said, because it eliminates some of the errors that can occur during transportation.

Typically, an international team of about 15 people -- post-doctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduates -- work in Wang's SensoChip Lab at New Mexico State.

Scott Spillman, a junior biochemistry major from El Paso, has worked with Wang's group for more than a year and is a full-time research assistant this summer. He does precise screen printing and microfabrication to make channels on the microchips.

"It's exciting," said the Eastwood High School graduate. "It's all new technology."

Wang recently was ranked by the Institute for Scientific Information as the most cited scientist in the world in the field of engineering for the past decade, 1991-2001. The ranking is based on the number of times other scientists refer to Wang's publications in their own papers.

He holds a Regents Professorship at New Mexico State and is editor-in-chief of the international journal Electroanalysis.

Photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/wang_spillman_02.jpg.
CUTLINE: New Mexico State University chemistry Professor Joseph Wang, left, assisted here by junior biochemistry major Scott Spillman of El Paso, is working on development of a palm-sized device for detecting chemical and explosive weapons. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Karl Hill
June 3, 2002