Will travelers once again be able to sip coffee while passing through airport security gates?
Scientists at the Energy Department’s Los Alamos National Laboratory hope so. Working in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, the scientists have developed the Magnetic Vision Innovative Prototype, or MagViz, a machine that can detect liquid-bomb ingredients in fluids. The MagViz produces a magnetic field that gleans the properties of hidden substances — the same way hospital MRI scanners peer inside a patient’s brain.
But the device is large and expensive.
“To borrow a football analogy, we’ve brought this technology 80 yards down the field, and we need industry to carry it the rest of the way,” says Stephen Surko, a program manager at DHS’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. “We’re hoping industry will have the insights that will make this a more practical system.”
The Energy Department has issued a request for proposals to commercialize the device, and officials have scheduled a March workshop with industry leaders to discuss ideas. One problem, Surko says, is that the system currently requires liquid helium — a substance he doubts could ever be used in airports because it’s tough to handle. “We’re not focusing on the practical aspects now,” he adds. “Just the accuracy aspects.”
The original MagViz prototype had too many false-positive readings, such as indicating danger in certain shampoos and sodas. In tests last year, a more advanced prototype correctly flagged all liquid-explosive ingredients and had only one false positive. This year, researchers plan to continue fine tuning the system, which has received $14.5 million in government funding through 2010.
The machine emits a low-intensity magnetic field that is used to detect the chemical makeup of fluids. Developers intend it to be employed in conjunction with X-ray scanners and other detection devices.
For more than four years, travelers have had to limit the liquids in their carry-on luggage to 3-ounce containers. “At that time, we started scratching our heads and wondering what technologies would allow us to return to normal operations,” Surko says. “We thought, if we can tell the difference between fluids in the brain, maybe we could tell the difference between different liquids in different bottles.”