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Synchrotron researcher using silicon to deter bomb threats

John McLeod, a University of Saskatchewan PhD candidate, has been investigating mesoporous silicon as a potential touch-free bomb detector at the Canadian Light Source national synchrotron research centre.

The synchrotron allows researchers to isolate beams of intense light, providing researchers an effective way of understanding a material’s structure. After McLeod placed silicon that had been exposed to explosives into a beamline, he and his team discovered that despite the two materials not making physical contact, silicon reacted to airborne particles from the explosive.

“Not only could you deploy this at airports, but out in the field, too. In a war zone you could have hidden detectors around all the streets so you could conceivably track a shipment of explosives,” said McLeod.

The application of silicon in the field of bomb detection is ripe with potential. Not only can silicon detect explosive particles more precisely than technology currently found in airports like chemical swabs or bulky machines but the technology also displays promise in the area of cost-effectiveness.

Airport detection mechanisms often have the tendency to detect harmless compounds, mistaking them for real explosives.

“They have a fairly high rate of false positives and will think there is something dangerous there but in fact is not,” said McLeod. “It could be something that is chemically similar but is more common. Different types of gels or bath products can have similar properties.”

Trinitrotoluene (TNT) and military grade explosive Cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine (RDX) are two specific explosive compounds that can be detected by silicon.

McLeod is excited to be a part of research that could save lives and prevent terrorism.

“It’s extremely cool and is the reason why I do this kind of work,” he added.

McLeod and his colleagues now face the daunting task of furthering this research and devising a method to apply this technology practically.

Since the beamline at the Canadian Light Source is currently the only method to see how explosive particles and silicon react, researchers will now need to find a more compact device to perform this task if McLeod’s research is to find any real world application. McLeod said it could be years before this is accomplished but said that research into using a laser cased within layers of silicon wafers is a possibility.

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