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Bomb-detecting lasers could be next for carry-on luggage

Laser-equipped airport security checkpoints can pinpoint trace amounts of explosives, researchers say.

laser scanner
The laser scanner can detect trace amounts of explosives on luggage and clothing. Michigan State University

Your carry-on luggage and electronics are already intimately familiar with airport X-ray machines. But just when you thought wait times couldn't get any longer, they may one day be subjected to another check: bomb-detecting lasers.

Researchers at Michigan State University have developed a low-energy laser that can pick up minute amounts of chemical explosives on luggage and clothing.

Doubtless we would all love to see raygun-wielding TSA staff, but the bomb-detecting light would probably be used in a conveyor-belt system.

Described in the current issue of Applied Physics Letters, the laser uses a single beam fired in two pulses. The first resonates with chemical frequencies found in explosives, and the second serves as a reference, and any discrepancy could indicate a bomb, according to Michigan State.

"Since this method uses a single beam and requires no bulky spectrometers, it is quite practical and could scan many people and their belongings quickly," Michigan State chemistry professor Marcos Dantus said in a release.

"Not only does it detect the explosive material, but it also provides an image of the chemical's exact location, even if it's merely a minute trace on a zipper."

Scientists have long sought lasers that can be applied to detection while being safe enough to use around people. Dantus drew inspiration from a Harvard University collaboration for a laser that could detect cancer.

"The laser is not affected by the color or surface of clothes or luggage," added Dantus, who is founder of BioPhotonic Solutions, a Michigan State spinoff focused on femtosecond lasers.

"The resonant pulse and the shadow pulse are always in balance unless something is detected. Our method has Raman chemical specificity, excellent sensitivity, and robust performance on virtually all surfaces."

The Department of Homeland Security funded the research, and a standalone prototype machine could be developed in about a year.

That leaves you plenty of time to enjoy X-ray-only luggage screening.