Better than a drug-sniffing dog. PNNL technology quickly detects drugs and explosives

Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed technology that can quickly and accurately “sniff” out illicit drugs just as well as the sensitive nose of a dog.

But unlike a dog, there are no distractions, no need to rest and no expensive training required.

The challenge in detecting narcotics, as well as explosive vapors and some deadly chemicals, is that they do not vaporize. Unlike substances like perfume or gasoline, only minute quantities are released into the air.

It takes the super-sensitive nose of a dog to quickly detect them — or, now, the technology developed at the Department of Energy national laboratory in Richland that can nose out certain substances in the air at parts per trillion or less.

A German shepherd named Quattro-Quappe patrols to detect explosives at the checkpoint lines at the Sacramento International Airport. Lezlie Sterling

The level of sensitivity of the technology developed at PNNL is comparable to “finding a single pine needle in the state of Washington,” said Robert Ewing, a PNNL senior research scientist and one of the inventors of the technology.

It can find 10 molecules of an illicit substance among 1 quadrillion air molecules, according to PNNL.

Explosives were PNNL’s 1st goal

Work began on the technology at PNNL in 2012 with the initial goal of detecting trace amounts of explosive particles released into the air from luggage or cargo or from residue on passengers at airports.

Now the Transportation Safety Administration has more than 900 dogs that it uses to sniff out explosives in airports and other transportation hubs across the nation. They undergo 12 weeks of intensive training with their handlers and require continued work to maintain the dog’s enthusiasm and sharpness.

Alternatively, a cloth-like wipe can be run over luggage or items being carried onto a plane. Then the swipe sample has to be heated or pre-concentrated to obtain results.

A quick, accurate and highly sensitive process to reliably detect minute traces of explosives and illicit drugs has been demonstrated by scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

PNNL’s technology would offer an alternative that is faster, less labor intensive and can operate around the clock.

The technology collects a sample of air and converts the sample to ions within a reaction tube. The ionized sample then moves to a mass spectrometer for ion detection and identification, with the entire process taking just seconds.

The chemistry can be tailored to look for different substances.

By 2014 researchers had shown the technology could be used to detect RDX, a commonly used military explosive that dogs are trained to detect.

From airports to mail centers

Researchers were able to expand capabilities by expanding the time from milliseconds to seconds for molecules to ionize, allowing other explosives, including TNT, to be detected.

“When we found the sensitivity it had with explosives, we thought, ‘Hey, we can possibly use it with drugs as well,” Ewing said.

Researchers have enhanced the technology to also detect drugs that include fentanyl, meth and cocaine.

PNNL envisions applications for explosives or drugs not only at airports and other transportation hubs, but also at places like stadiums, ports of entry, and postal or other package sorting centers.

For instance, it could sniff packages for drugs as they move through a sorting center on a conveyor belt or it could quickly check a filter that has had air pulled through it from within a cargo container.

Two patents have been granted for the technology, with another in the works.

But there is more work to be done, including shrinking the size of the technology, which now takes up a table in a corner of a PNNL lab.

That’s work that PNNL likely will leave to industry.

It is looking for companies interested in commercializing the technology for drugs and explosives.

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Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.