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Security Beat 

No Revival for Airport Puffer Machines Used to Detect Explosives 


By Stew Magnuson 

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The Transportation Security Administration has no plans to continue research into puffer machines that were designed to detect trace amounts of explosives on passengers.

Domenic Bianchini, general manager of TSA’s passenger screening program, said there are no active programs in the pipeline that would improve the technology that was pulled out of airports last year because of frequent malfunctions. He spoke at Transportation Security Laboratory, which tests and evaluates new explosive detection technologies.

It’s the lab’s philosophy to never say never, he added. “We’re always open to new ideas, new concepts and improvements to baseline technology. We’re never close minded,” he said.

The puffer machines were rushed into airports in the wake of two airplane bombings in Russia attributed to Chechnyan terrorists called the “Black Widows.” These young women were suspected of hiding explosives underneath their clothing.

The puffer machines became a poster child of technology that works well in a laboratory, but not in a real-world setting. Dust, humidity and dirt clogged the sensors. Fumes from jet fuel created false alarms. TSA purchased more than 200 machines from vendors Smiths Detection and General Electric in 2004, but deployed fewer than half of them.

By May 2009, the remaining puffer machines were pulled out of airports. The premature deployment of the technology cost taxpayers $36 million.

Airport passengers stepped into a chamber where they felt a series of puffs of air on various points of their bodies. These jets of air were designed to dislodge picogram-sized traces of the chemicals used to make explosives. A picogram can be as small as one part per trillion. The technology is based on the principle that it is impossible to make a “clean” bomb. No matter how hard a would-be terrorist tries, he will leave small traces of explosive residue on his skin or clothes.

TSA has now distributed portable trace explosive detectors (above) to every airport in the United States, Bianchini said. These require TSA officers to swab luggage or a person’s hands and then feed the small piece of cloth into a machine that can detect chemicals used to make bombs.

The process is more intrusive than the puffer machines, but the machines take up much less space. The lab is continuing to refine the algorithms and sensitivity of these machines, he said.

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