Boom and Bust (the Bad Guys)

Creating noxious smells and spectacular explosions are alleged to be among the key attractions of chemistry. Alas, if it smells bad it probably isn’t good for you. If it blows up…well, that’s not really good for you either.

Unfortunately, there happen to be bad people in the world who seek to blow up others with explosive devices. Considerable research has gone into highly sensitive detection systems that can be used to screen airports, package facilities, and other locations that might be attractive targets for these weapons. One promising strategy is described in a new publication from the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT, which uses a chemical sensor to detect as little as one molecule of TNT.

TNT, or trinitrotoluene, is relatively stable, cheap, and powerful, making it one of the most potent and widely used explosives. It is also used in a wide variety of common explosive blends. Thus, a convenient and sensitive TNT recognition system could safeguard against many types of explosive threat.

The new detection technology is pure cleverness. It uses the ever-trendy carbon nanotube, the surprising presence of bee venom, and a home-made microscope to sense fluorescence. This Rube Goldberg concoction relies on the finding that TNT, in addition to all the attributes mentioned above, is also recognized by a peptide found in bee venom (bombolitin). When this peptide is attached to the nanotube, and TNT binds to it, the inherent fluorescence of the carbon structures shifts. The binding of only a single molecule is enough to reliably detect the presence of TNT – far eclipsing the capacity of competing technologies.

Now, don’t race to the airport just yet. There is much work to be done before this new explosive sensor is ready for primetime, so your transit through security will probably still entail shoe removal, X-rays, and subjection to random searches. But perhaps we can hope for a return of personal dignity someday – thanks to chemistry of course.

Posted In: Technology

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