US detector sniffs out threats

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A new kind of mass spectrometer can sniff out biological, chemical and nuclear threats, all at virtually the same time.A new kind of mass spectrometer can sniff out biological, chemical and nuclear threats, all at virtually the same time, US government researchers said on Thursday.

Their process, called Single-Particle Aerosol Mass Spectrometry (SPAMS), also detected illicit drugs and explosives without being reset in between tests, they said.

The team at the Department of Energy`s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California reported on their experiments in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

"We believe SPAMS is the only detection instrument that can autonomously detect multiple types of threat agents and trigger alarms within less than a minute," said Matthias Frank, who worked on the study.

"What sets this work apart is that we did our experiments with all these types of threat agents within minutes of each other without reconfiguring the SPAMS instrument."

Usually, mass spectrometers must be calibrated for each compound being tested.

The detector was tested against spores of a nonpathogenic strain of Bacillus anthracis, a relative of the anthrax bacteria; diethyl phthalate, which shows up as a nerve agent; natural cobalt powder, a surrogate for Cobalt 60 and other radioactive metals; and the explosive RDX.

It identified each accurately in less than a minute.

It also detected pseudoephedrine, which is used to synthesise methamphetamine.

"What we have accomplished is to make an instrument that is very sensitive, with a very low false alarm rate, but very fast," LNL physicist Paul Steele, who led the study, said in a statement.



"That`s unique. Other systems that are just as fast and sensitive have higher false alarm rates.”