The Future of Handheld Chemical Detection & Identification

There is an increasing need for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosive (CBRNE) detection tools that can transition with the evolving array of modern threats society faces. This need has resulted in the development of new technologies that effectively detect andentify a wide variety of explosive and chemical threats. Such technologies can be used at the point of need by first responders, civil support teams, and military units. Priorities for the deployment of fieldable technologies are influenced both by risks anticipated during military deployment and by incident responses to domestic chemical attack such as Tokyo’s 1995 sarin incident, or bombings like London’s 2005 subway attack and the more recent 2013 Boston Marathon incident.

Extremist groups continue to develop explosive and chemical emission devices that are increasingly difficult to detect by employing techniques to disguise the technology, or designing and engineering to emit only trace amounts of vapor, making them difficult to detect using existing technology. These developments call attention to the imminent need to equip first responders with modern advanced analytical capabilities that provide actionable answers in the field.

Demand for New Technologies 

Hazardous material and CBRNE communities recognize that presently deployed technologies for threat detection andentification struggle to keep pace with the increasing range of chemical threats that can be employed. This is particularly true in chemical defense where a host of industrial compounds and new weapons-grade materials are expanding concerns beyond traditional chemical warfare agents.  Additionally, homemade explosive devices are now often fabricated from a range of commonly available materials, expanding threat lists beyond traditional explosives.

In an environment of tightening government budgets, equipping first responders with the correct tools for chemical and explosive threats remains a priority. As an example, progress on the U.S. government’s Next Generation Chemical Detector (NGCD) program, demonstrates significant investment in the development of new technology. Existing technology is no longer sufficient for the complex array of new chemical threats, but the NGCD program is specifically designed to develop and procure devices for chemical warfare agents, toxic industrial chemicals, and beyond.

Existing Trends in Detection 

Widely deployed technologies traditionally used to detect orentify these threats – such as ion mobility spectrometry, Raman, and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) – fulfill their purposes, but no single technique or approach can handle the wide array of challenges faced today. Although the responder toolkit is robust, gaps remain for downrange chemicalentification.

Within the past decade, the introduction of robust, handheld Raman, and FTIR spectrometers have filled significant capability gaps. These technologies created a paradigm shift in the first responders’ approach, arming teams with sophisticated analytical capabilities directly in the hot zone. The remarkable chemical selectivity of these tools enables theentification of a wide range of chemicals – both actual threats and benign materials that will typically be present at a scene. These disruptive developments dramatically increase the ability toentify chemicals in a variety of harsh environments and increase situational awareness. Although these devices significantly redefined capabilities of the first responder, the primary limitation is that these devices are not very sensitive, so relatively large amounts of the material in question are required to obtain a result. Raman and FTIR rarely can be used for trace-level detection andentification.

Older technologies using ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) are sensitive and, therefore, suitable for trace detection. However, they lack the selectivity required to effectively differentiate compounds, thus limiting detection with IMS units to a very small list of target compounds. Arguably worse for deployment, a wide array of interferents – including diesel fumes, cleaning supplies, and colognes – trigger frequent false alarms on IMS devices and undermine confidence in their use.

Until recently, one technology that has not been available in a handheld form factor is mass spectrometry. Commonly referred to as the “gold-standard” technique for analytical testing, mass spectrometry has been confined to laboratories by its large size, expense, fragility, and complexity. Conventional mass spectrometry systems typically are operated and maintained by highly trained experts. The development of “luggable,” or person portable, mass spectrometry systems is a step forward in bringing this powerful capability to the field. However, present systems remain relatively fragile, expensive, and complex to use.

The Future of Trace Detection 

At the scene of a CBRNE incident, first responders must be equipped with tools to help them detect andentify an array of chemicals, and often at trace levels. In order to establish the most appropriate course of action, they need to be able to quickly and accurately assess the situation, which means they must have reliable answers as soon as possible. Innovative new mass spectrometry devices are expected to fill current capability gaps, expand the responder toolkit, and provide specific chemical analysis down to trace levels in a matter of seconds rather than hours.

Devices with little susceptibility to false alarms will offer responders more confidence in their subsequent course of action. Mass spectrometry is powerful and selective enough to detect trace-level target compounds when other chemicals, or interferents, are present in the background – a common occurrence in real-world situations.

It is crucial that the next generation of technology keep up with the expanding and evolving list of chemicals that could be used in a CBRNE attack. Achieving this will require a leap in technology so that first responders, civil support teams, and the military have the equipment needed to effectively detect andentify threats, take action, and protect their communities as well as themselves. New breakthroughs for CBRNE detection will come from mass spectrometry in a miniaturized and rugged format. These tools will provide new capability, meeting the need for trace-to-bulk detection with the speed, power, and fidelity required for the response missions of today.

Chris Petty

Dr. Chris Petty is co-founder and vice president of business development at Boston, Massachusetts, based 908 Devices. He is an executive with over 21 years of experience in the analytical instrumentation industry. He has been responsible for development of new markets and market expansions introducing product platforms in numerous high growth acquired businesses at Thermo Fisher Scientific. He has more than 25-refereed papers and conference presentations, has won R&D 100 and Frost & Sullivan awards for his products, and an American Marketing Association award for interactive promotional campaigns. He received a Ph.D. in Chemistry and B.Sc. in Physics from Southampton University in the United Kingdom with industrial sponsorship from PerkinElmer.



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