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U.K. Terror Plot Boosts Development of Detection Technology

The alleged terror plot to use liquid explosives to bring down commercial jets over the Atlantic Ocean is fueling research into explosives detection technologies. Several U.S. companies have already started promoting new devices. But some security experts say even the most advanced detection techniques may not be enough to stop a terrorist attack.

A plastic soda bottle looks harmless but explosives experts say its contents pack a powerful punch.

A controlled blast that destroyed a mailbox was made using common household chemicals and triggered by a simple electronic switch.

Ohio explosives expert Mike Grimes says, aboard a commercial jetliner, the chemical cocktail could cause serious damage. "One person would smuggle one component on. One person would smuggle another component on. With a combination of all the components they could put it together in the aircraft and detonate it in flight."

Security experts say the key is to make sure the ingredients used to make liquid bombs are detected before they get inside an airplane. Southern California electronics firm says its detector can see under clothing and determine if a liquid is harmless or dangerous. Rapiscan vice president Peter Williamson says the system will be commercially available in two months.

"What it does, it emanates neutrons from the source, bombards the item under inspection,” says Williamson. “That further radiates the atomic signature down to the atomic molecular level and that will tell us exactly what the material is so we can differentiate various liquid threats, liquid explosives, from a bottle of wine, a bottle of water, from a bottle of hairspray."

The Ahura Corporation in the state of Massachusetts is using a much smaller device to identify chemicals inside sealed containers. Company chief Douglas Kahn says right now the handheld device can detect up to 2500 chemicals. "This product, the 'First Defender,' aims a light inside the bottle. It then looks at the reflection of that light and it captures what we call a chemical signature, much like a fingerprint."

Aviation experts say the new devices show promise over current technology. These $160,000 machines are called “puffers.” They blow air around passengers to sniff for hazardous chemicals. But there are only 93 of the machines deployed at 36 airports.

Congressman Ed Markey is a member of the Homeland Security committee. "Only 10 percent of airports have the equipment necessary to properly screen passengers for explosives before they go onto the planes,” he said.

For now, airports around the world are employing a decidedly lower-tech approach. The Transportation Security Administration says it is shifting resources to better train and hire thousands of airport security screeners around the country.