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Replacing Fido with Fiber Optics

Some homeland security first responders travel on four legs. Thanks to a four-year collaboration between UMBC chemistry and biochemistry professor Bradley Arnold and George Murray of The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), an explosive detection device about the size of a pocket calculator may one day give bomb-sniffing canines a high-tech break.

“We hope our detector will be as sensitive as the bomb detecting dogs—plus you will not have to feed it and it never needs a rest," says Arnold.

According to Arnold, a patent is in the works for both tabletop and handheld versions of the device, and the inventors are already talking to a local company about licensing their new technology.

Murray, a former professor in the chemistry department at UMBC, is an expert in molecularly imprinted polymers, or MIPs. “MIPs are polymers that have cavities in them that are designed to have exactly the right shape to hold the molecule of interest—like how a key fits a lock,” explains Arnold.

Paired with fiber optics, which picks up a light emission signal created when the explosive agent reacts with a surrounding material, the MIP provides a way to identify explosive compounds. “All you have to do is wave the fiber in the area you want to check for explosives, and if they are present, you can see the emission from them using our device,” says Arnold.

Aside from using the technology to protect against terror attacks, Arnold and Murray also have some more everyday uses in mind—similar devices that will recognize certain drugs or spoiled food. “We think mothers would like to know what their teenage kids are up to and if the leftovers in the fridge are still safe to eat,” says Arnold. “But that’s another field altogether—call it household security instead of homeland security."

Posted: November 14, 2005, 12:00 PM