Fliers may now — or in the near future — travel with somewhat more confidence. A joint effort by UCSB professors and researchers, both teams a combination of experts from the Mechanical Engineering and Chemistry departments, has resulted in an ability to detect even the smallest levels of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), the substance used in the attempted terrorist attack aboard the Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on December 25.

The inventors, who formed SpectraFluidics Inc. at the Storke-Hollister Research Center as a means of commercializing the detection technique, are confident in the technology’s accuracy. Most likely to be implemented for use in handheld scanners and portal devices, the technology will be able to identify PETN — one of the most explosive materials in the world — in either solid or vapor form should it emanate from a passenger, luggage, or both.

Unlike other screening measures suggested in the wake of the recent terrorist attempt — such as full-body scanners, which virtually undress the passengers — the PETN detection technology will allow for both added security and passengers’ rights to privacy. It will also purportedly be less expensive for the airports to install and less time-consuming for fliers. More importantly, added SpectraFluids CEO Craig Cummings, PETN “is difficult to detect using conventional airport scanning and inspection technology.”

Because of this, plans are in the works to update existing airport scanners with the new device sometime this year.


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