National

Nov 28, 2013 4:13 PM by Juice Godfrey

Nuke lab works on liquids scanner for airport use

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory are working to perfect a technology that could eliminate the need for travelers to toss their liquids when they go through airport security.

A lab team has combined magnetic resonance with low-power X-rays that together can better distinguish between harmless liquids and those that could be used to make explosives.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the goal is to see what's inside an unopened bottle.

Lab physicist Michelle Espy leads the team that developed a device they call the MagRay.

One day, the team's work could mean airport security officers and travelers won't have to worry about rules restricting personal care items to 3-ounce bottles all shoved into a single clear plastic bag. "No one wants to have the restrictions in place," Espy said in a recent interview.

The ban has been in place since an al-Qaida plot to sneak liquid explosives onto U.S.-bound planes was thwarted in 2006.

The MagRay is the next breakthrough in a machine the LANL team developed in 2008 that used magnetic resonance imaging alone to distinguish between dangerous and benign liquids.

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs, are used in hospitals to look at soft tissue for damage and disease.

The LANL team found their earlier machine, called MagViz, was highly effective in determining whether the liquid in a soda can or a shampoo bottle, for instance, was something dangerous.

Now "MagRay is essentially MagViz plus x-ray," Espy said. "MagViz was extremely good at certain types of liquids, but had trouble with a few like complex mixtures."

The new machine measures the density of protons and the activity of those protons to decipher the chemicals in the fluid. So it can distinguish between a bottle of white wine and a wine bottle that actually contains nitromethane for example, a clear liquid that could be used to make an explosive.

The team has tested the machine in the lab on everyday liquids and on a variety of substances on a Homeland Security Department "threat list." The agency is helping finance the development.

Espy said the goal now is to make MagRay easy to use, small and fast. Eventually they want an operator at an airport to be able to scan bags and any other containers and have bottles show up as red or green on the screen: Red for dangerous and green for benign.

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