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Plowshares to Shields

October 2002
By Henry S. Kenyon

Laboratories convert scientific tools to homeland security devices.

U.S. government research centers are applying existing technologies in new ways to help fight the war on terrorism. These new applications will permit better detection of radioactive materials or chemical and biological weapons and aid first responders in the event of a chemical or biological attack.

Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Illinois, is one of several federal facilities involved in these efforts to protect the homeland in the event of terrorist activity. One of the original Manhattan Project laboratories that developed the first atomic weapons, it has devoted much of the past half century to the study of nuclear power and its byproducts. However, researchers there also have branched off into a number of different areas of inquiry.

According to Dr. Harvey Drucker, coordinator for national security research at Argonne, the laboratory is developing some 200 technologies that have homeland security applications. Although the primary area of inquiry remains energy science and development, three areas relevant to national security have emerged: nuclear technologies, chemical and biological systems, and infrastructure. 

The laboratory also is involved in emergency management. A part of the Department of Energy’s radiation assistance program, Argonne provides regional support in the event of radiation-related incidents in northern Illinois. Drucker notes that Argonne, like many national laboratories and universities, is heavily involved in local emergency response coordination.

Prior to September 11, 2001, much of the facility’s research was focused on identifying different types of weapons-grade materials. However, the nature of the threat has changed as terrorists seek out lower grade radioactive substances to make radiological, or “dirty,” bombs. One of the laboratory’s specialties is determining the countries of origin of nuclear materials. Argonne scientists can trace material to systems based on their makeup and design.

The events of September 11 have forced the laboratory’s scientists to think differently about how they apply their work. In addition to finding uses for existing systems and research, Argonne scientists are beginning to develop entirely new applications geared for homeland security.

A miniature neutron detector is one example of a scientific instrument with homeland security uses. It is based on gallium arsenide semiconductor chip technology that forms the heart of the device, explains Argonne research scientist Raymond Klann. Contacts attached to the front and back of the chip form a diode. A coating of boron or lithium, which converts neutrons into charged particles, is then applied to the detector. Every neutron entering the device creates two charged particles that register in the semiconductor wafer as an electrical signal.

Klann says this innovation offers certain advantages over existing neutron detectors and tools such as Geiger counters, which read gamma rays. One common neutron detector uses a tube of gas that becomes ionized when neutrons pass through it. This type of device is larger and requires more power than gallium arsenide-based systems.  Another type of detector uses silicon semiconductors, but requires cooling, degrades more quickly when exposed to radiation and uses more power, he says.

Because naturally occurring neutron sources are rare, the detector is very useful for locating weapons-grade materials. Substances that emit neutrons are used in nuclear weapons, special nuclear byproducts and material incorporated into neutron sources. By contrast, there are many natural and man-made sources of gamma rays. “If you’re measuring neutrons, something is going on,” he says.

The Argonne detector is roughly the size of a nickel and can be installed into devices as small as a pack of cards. Because it is so small, inspectors or weapons verification teams could use the detector in restricted spaces where conventional equipment cannot go. The low-power device typically operates in the 20- to 30-volt range. The detectors are made from existing technologies. Klann explains that Argonne manufactures small quantities of the devices for its own use, but a specialized version for government use would require development by an outside group.

Like many of the technologies pressed into homeland security uses, these devices originated from studies of fast neutron detectors for radiography. Researchers were drawn to gallium arsenide semiconducting material because of its sensitivity to neutrons, Klann observes.

A detector is currently in use at Argonne’s Intense Pulsed Neutron Source as a beam monitor. Attached directly to the equipment, the detector permits scientists time to conduct more research because they can calibrate for neutron scattering while running experiments. Previously, separate measurements had to be taken, which reduced time on the neutron beam, Klann says.

Argonne scientists also are developing chemical and biological detectors. Their expertise is in using ceramics as catalysts for chemical reactions to identify military chemical agents, Drucker says. The laboratory has developed a family of chemical detectors in a range of sizes, from nickel-size handheld devices to systems that are installed in aircraft for conducting wide-area ground scans.

Another avenue of research is biochip technology for detecting biological agents such as anthrax. Drucker explains that the evolution of these systems also reflects how priorities have changed after September 11. Argonne originally developed the biochips with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Arlington, Virginia, for battlefield monitoring uses. The military equipment is vehicle-mounted and ruggedized. Operated by trained personnel, each device costs roughly $400,000 with an expected production of 500 units.

But September 11 created a totally different paradigm, Drucker says. The new requirements for a biological agent detector call for a device that can be produced by the thousands, fit into an air vent, operate autonomously with little or no maintenance for up to a year and cost about $100.

The device detects biological agents by identifying their DNA, molecules and proteins. It sucks in air containing suspected bioagents, then traps and tests them on microscopic gel bubbles on a slide. Drucker compares these gel samples to the equivalent of 10,000 test tubes on a single slide. Scientists have developed a gel system to quickly catalog various anthrax strains and are working on a pumping method to move material and samples around on the slide. Depending on funding, he expects a portable biochip system to be ready for widespread use in two to three years.

Infrastructure protection is another area where Argonne scientists are applying existing techniques to homeland security uses. In the United States, all of the major fuel, natural gas and electrical systems are interconnected. The electrical grid is especially important because it also powers the nation’s communications systems. “If you turn off the electricity, it will ultimately cut everything off,” Drucker explains.

Because a well-placed attack could cripple the nation’s infrastructure, Argonne is working with the national laboratories at Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico to create a very large database of the nation’s energy grids and pipelines. In the event of an attack or crisis, the program will permit emergency planners to find alternative paths to maintain service.

Like many technologies being applied to homeland security, this system was developed originally for peacetime uses. Drucker explains that Argonne designed computer models to track natural gas and electrical use when those industries were deregulated. Because these resources could now move to different markets, the government wanted a method to track and tax the transactions, he says.

An example of a system created from the ground up as a security tool is the Program for Response Options and Technology Enhancements for Chemical/Biological Terrorism (PROTECT). Developed under the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Chemical and Biological National Security Program, the system is designed to reduce the impact of chemical or biological attacks on vulnerable infrastructures such as subways and airports.

According to Dr. Anthony S. Policastro, PROTECT program manager, the project began in 1998 and was inspired by events such as the 1995 poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway system. It is designed to provide first responders and law enforcement personnel with timely and accurate data about chemical and biological attacks in large public areas.

The program’s goal is to demonstrate a prototype integrated, automated early warning and response system for airports and subway systems. The system will detect and identify chemical aerosols, map contaminated areas and assist first responders in managing and mitigating a crisis.

Two separate parts of the program deal specifically with subways and airports. The subway aspect is partnering with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Federal Transit Administration, and the National Institute of Justice to apply the PROTECT system to the Washington, D.C., subway system.

Tests have been conducted to identify and model airflow patterns, and a detector testbed was installed to evaluate performance in a subway environment. Work also is proceeding to develop tools to identify hazard zones above and below ground and to recommend response strategies such as how to direct train traffic and conduct emergency control of ventilation systems. Policastro explains that chemical detectors alone would not be sufficient for early warning because they can give false alarms. However, when combined with cameras and computer networking, an integrated system becomes a practical approach to addressing the problem, he says.

A wireless communications system designed to transmit data to an incident response commander at the scene also is being evaluated. Situational awareness is provided by real-time video and data transmitted to commanders’ portable computers, allowing them to access information about an incident while en route to the emergency and alerting responders to the presence of chemical plumes in their path, Policastro says. The testbed wireless system also allows users to access images from underground cameras in the subway system permitting rescuers to assess the situation. He adds that the wireless system has performed very well in evaluations.

Deployment of the wireless component of PROTECT will depend on cost and Federal Communications Commission approval. The system requires radio routers, and costs and maintenance issues must be worked out, Policastro says. A multistation system demonstration is planned for 2003. Once the prototype demonstration is completed, the technology may be available for use by subway systems across the country.

Argonne and the National Nuclear Security Administration also are working with the Federal Aviation Administration to use PROTECT in airports. Field tests were conducted in June 2000 in a large U.S. airport terminal to determine the potential effectiveness of operational responses against these kinds of attacks. Appropriate airflow control and well-chosen personnel evacuation routes were shown to significantly reduce casualties. Tools and experience gained from the subway testbed are being used to design the detection and emergency response systems for airports, Policastro says.


Additional information on the Argonne National Laboratory is available on the World Wide Web at