Spotting Hazards

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Science  20 Jun 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5883, pp. 1564
DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5883.1564d

Fast detection of hazardous airborne materials in crowded settings such as airports has the potential to save many lives, but remains very challenging. The concentrations of hazardous material are likely to be extremely low, whereas other (harmless) aerosols are present in high concentrations. Furthermore, the response needs to be accurate to avoid costly false alarms that might require evacuation. Steele et al. have developed a single-particle aerosol mass spectrometry (SPAMS) system that addresses many of these issues. The system allows the detection, analysis, and identification of a wide range of hazardous aerosols, from chemical and biological to radioactive and explosive materials, within seconds. A 7-week field test at San Francisco International Airport showed a low false alarm rate. Key to the success of the method is not only the detailed characterization of individual particles without need for reagents, but also a complex software control system. However, challenges remain before the system can be deployed as a commercial detector; the current instrument is large and expensive, and further live-agent tests are required to test the system. — JFU

Anal. Chem. 80, 10.1021/ac8004428 (2008).

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