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Naval researchers use new sensors to detect explosives, dangerous chemicals

In the modern combat arena, United States military personnel are under constant threat from an enemy lying in wait. IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, are strategically placed along roadsides and in buildings where they can cause the most destruction and take as many lives as possible. But, thanks to the development of new state-of-the-art sensors, scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory are hoping to help the armed forces defeat this menacing foe.

As Dr. Chris Field explains in a video for Tech Briefs TV, the SiN-VAPOR sensor is about the size of a quarter and could be attached to mobile devices, like smartphones, and carried onto the battlefield. SiN-VAPOR stands for silicon nanowire vertical array with a porous electrode. While sensors of a decade ago struggled to detect certain chemical vapors in the parts per million range, the SiN-VAPOR routinely picks up chemicals in the parts per billion range.

“If every soldier has one of these sensors, and they are on some sort of communication network such as a cell phone, they can all talk to each other,” Field says. “All the sensors can communicate with each other and you can begin to map the area from a chemical [perspective]. We do a lot of work in doing topography and mapping of landscapes and such. We’d like to do the same thing with chemical vapors.”

Silicon bonding techniques make such sensors possible in the size and form factor that allow them to be affixed to mobile devices. Then, an individual can walk into a room and immediately detect explosives present, potentially saving the lives of everyone in the area.

As sensor technology continues to improve and is coupled with advancements in thermal management of electronics, U.S. military personnel around the world – and even law enforcement officials at home – will be able to use mobile devices as critical field operational tools.

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