A nanotechnology sensor that can pick up the scent of molecules from explosives better than a trained dog’s nose has been developed by Tel Aviv University scientists. The sensor is arousing much interest among the security forces, as it could be used to locate explosives at airports, shopping malls, railway stations, and other public places instead of existing, less accurate technologies.

The development has just been published in Nature Communications, a prestigious, multidisciplinary journal that reports on high-quality research in many fields.

The TAU team, headed by Prof. Fernando Patolsky of the School of Physics, said existing explosives sensors are expensive, bulky, and require a long time and experts to interpret the findings. The new sensor, however, is small, inexpensive, and mobile and can identify explosives efficiently and with great accuracy, said Patolsky.

The sensor is comprised of a chip on which nano-fibers from silicon are installed, forming a very sensitive electrical device that is coated with a layer of 144 chemical sensors. When just a single molecule of an explosive comes into contact with the sensors, it binds with them, triggering a rapid and accurate mathematical analysis of the material.

“This is exactly what happens to a dog’s nose or tongue,” said Patolsky. “Our sensor is a kind of artificial nose for molecules of explosives, but it is 3,000 times more sensitive than a dog’s.” Even dogs cannot compete with it, said the scientist.

Usually, the more accurate the sensor, the less selective it is, but the sensors on the TAU device are selective up to a concentration of one per quadrillion.

This is unprecedented, said the professor. It can also identify explosive molecules from large distances.

Each device is the size of a laptop, he said, but this is only a working model. “We are already working on building a smaller one the size of an I-phone and more mobile.”

The discovery is based on a previous sensor that Patolsky and his team built three years ago to identify substances used in biological and chemical warfare. A private company named Tracense, which has partnered with TAU, invested millions of dollars in developing the patented working model, which is already being examined and tested by local security forces, including the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).

In the future, said Patolsky, the sensor could be used by forces in the field. “It could also function on unmanned aerial vehicles, he said.

This is because a lab that makes explosives produces abundant explosive molecules that float in the air. A pilotless aircraft can suck in the air over a suspected lab and identify the explosives, said Patolsky, whose team members are also helping him develop sensors for civilian uses.

“On the basis of the security model, we are developing sensors for other uses, such as some to detect narcotics,” he concluded.

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