By Jeff Karoub, Candace Stuart and Tom Henderson
Small Times Staff Writers
Sept. 11, 2001 — Small tech could help prevent future terrorist attacks like those in New York and Washington, D.C., on Tuesday that destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, said a leading authority on MEMS and microsystems.
David Williams, former director of the microsystems program at Sandia National Laboratories, outlined three key areas where small tech can be part of a solution before, during or after a terrorist attack: Microsystems and nanotechnology can help gather intelligence, make potential targets more secure and increase the value of forensic evidence after an attack.
Williams now serves as vice president and chief executive of the Southwest Office for Ardesta LLC in Albuquerque, N.M.. Ardesta is the parent company of Small Times Media.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy lab, created a scanning technology for the Federal Aviation Administration to screen airline passengers for plastic weapons and explosives that today’s X-ray and metal detectors don’t register.
The scanner sends out millimeter waves that penetrate materials such as clothing but not flesh or other solid objects. Instead, the waves bounce back to a transceiver that converts the signal to digital form that a computer interprets as a three-dimensional holographic image. The transceiver utilizes microfabrication technologies.
PNNL said the scanner has been tested in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and could be used to improve security in government buildings, mass transit operations, prisons and numerous other institutions.
Small tech can also help fortify a building, subway or other public gathering place by detecting explosives and chemical or biological weapons.
Airport security systems could include devices that detect explosives, harmful chemicals and even narcotics as early as next year, according to Sense Holdings Inc. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based company is collaborating with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to produce a MEMS detector for public safety applications.
“Sense Holdings is looking to make a dog with replaceable noses,” said Dore Perler, chief executive of the company. “The goal is to be able to detect specific (materials).”
Oak Ridge scientist Thomas Thundat developed a MEMS technology that detects trace fumes that explosives and other products give off. The device could be used for airport, building and environmental security systems.
MicroChemLab Technologies, which is a private-sector spin-off from Sandia, has developed a hand-held gas analyzer that can detect poisonous agents like sarin, soman and mustard gas, plus a wide range of explosives. The detector help sniff out terrorist tools.
Sandia scientists also developed a portable sensor system about the size of a soccer ball that can detect minuscule traces of explosives under water. It pulls out molecules that migrate from the explosives into the surrounding water.
MesoSystems Technology Inc. in Albuquerque is working with partner companies to adapt existing detection systems for toxins and other biological threats into MEMS devices, said Charles Call, MesoSystems president and chief executive.
The Department of Defense awarded funding to MesoSystems for research and development on a biosensor that can detect low concentrations of potentially life-threatening contaminants. The company is trying to expand that technology to include airborne pathogens, including biological agents.
In theory, building materials that incorporate nanoparticles and nanotubes could provide an immensely strong foundation and girding that could retain its rigidity in an attack. But few materials are commercially available. Most are produced in small quantities in university research labs, where yield is miniscule and cost is high.
Carbon nanotubes, for instance, are much stronger than steel at a fraction of the weight, but are still too expensive to consider for building applications, said Bob Gower, chief executive of Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. in Houston. CNI is trying to produce single walled carbon nanotubes commercially, at low cost and in high yields, by the middle of the decade.
“I think carbon nanotubes will be too expensive for a long time,” Gower said. “But 15 years out it will be feasible.”
Gower said the cost must drop and the tubes must be grown longer to achieve maximum strength before carbon nanotubes can be marketed for building purposes.
Carbon nanotubes are not the only material being considered. Researchers at the Center for Transportation Nanotechnology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., are researching ways to add various nanomaterials to steel to make it stronger and more resistant to corrosion.
Williams said small, highly reliable and affordable devices and systems — such as smart dust and nanosatellites — are being developed that can help detect and gather intelligence before an attack happens.
Smart dust actually is a tiny sensor that can monitor light, heat, movement and sound. Larger versions are being produced as wireless infrared sensors and security monitoring tags to keep employees out of restricted areas.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Crossbow Technology Inc., a San Jose-based company, are working to commercialize smart dust. Crossbow is supplying a 1-inch-diameter version to universities, military and civil research facilities and businesses.
With research funded by U.S. Department of Defense, the technology also would monitor people.
MEMS-enabled nanosatellites will help track rogue nations and terrorist activity. They could take photos of suspected poison-gas labs, for example, while monitoring the air around them for trace amounts of chemical or biological agents.
Nanosatellites cost less to launch and swarms of them can be used in a coordinated but flexible effort, much like PCs can be linked to solve complicated problems.
For example, if one detected something suspicious while monitoring activity over a rogue nation or suspected terrorist hideouts, others could be summoned to do monitoring of their own, with a quantum leap in intelligence gathering. The first group of nanosatellites is scheduled for launch in 2003.
If neither high intelligence nor more-secure targets can prevent an attack, small tech could at least help offer clues at the crime scene.
Micro- and nanotechnology products are being researched and developed that can be used to analyze explosive materials and forensic DNA samples. The U.S. Department of Justice has budgeted $1.4 million in fiscal year 2002 to apply nanotechnology in such work.
According to the proposed budget for the U.S. government’s National Nanotechnology Initiative, nanotechnology will be a significant part of a device that eventually will be integrated into the current crime lab processes and protocols to analyze forensic DNA samples.
“Any lead is important,” Williams said. “It’s amazing what police do with just fragments of knowledge.”
Many of these technologies that could potentially deter or detect terrorists are possible today, given the right allocation of resources, Williams said.
“The truth is, the science of these things does not need to be discovered. It’s going to be about engineering, fabrication and deployment. We can make dramatic increases in all of these areas within months if there’s a national will to do it.”