Digital Dog Nose

bomb-sniffing dog

Chemical engineering professor creates prototype to detect bombs

It’s the size of a toolbox, and just as sturdy, with a handle so the lightweight device can be carried—quickly, if necessary—to different locations.

If all goes as planned, “The Digital Dog Nose” created by Otto Gregory, chemical engineering professor at the University of Rhode Island, could soon be placed at subway stations, train stations, airports and ports to detect bombs.

“We’re ready to get the word out,” says Gregory, whose work is funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “We’re trying to make life safer for people throughout the world.”

Two years ago, Otto and his students created a sensor to detect explosives commonly used by terrorists. One of the explosives is triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, which was used by terrorists during the Paris and Brussels attacks several years ago.

Terrorists use TATP because it is easy to make with chemicals that can be bought at pharmacies and hardware stores, attracting little attention from authorities. Only small amounts are needed to cause large explosions.

The goal of Gregory’s research is to find a way to detect the explosives’ vapors before the bomb detonates, launching quick evacuations and saving lives. The device works continuously, unlike bomb-sniffing dogs that can get tired.

During field trials, the prototype was able to detect explosives at very low concentrations, as low as one molecule of an explosive in a billion molecules of air. The next step is to make the prototype as small as a cell phone. The team is also reaching out to partners to market the product and to federal agencies involved with national security. •