Rhode Island: It's All in Our Backyard

Sniffing out innovative solutions

April 6, 2016 by chris

otto gregory uri

In his University of Rhode Island lab, Otto Gregory is working to make the world a safer place. The chemical engineering professor has developed a sensor that detects traces of triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, an explosive commonly used by suicide bombers, including those in last year’s terrorist attack on Paris.

What makes his sensor extraordinary is that it can be used round-the-clock in public spaces. The science is so ground-breaking, that URI has received $1 million from the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security to perfect it.

“If someone carrying TATP were to walk by in a relatively confined space, like a subway or an airport, the sensor could detect it,’’ Gregory says. “It works all the time.’’

A tin oxide catalyst in the sensor causes the TATP molecule to decompose at a specific temperature. The sensor monitors the amount of heat released by the decomposition and triggers an alarm.

Sensors are the future of explosive detection systems, says Gregory. Not only does his sensor detect TATP, it can also determine if ammonium nitrate, TNT and other explosives are present. Dogs can still be trained to track down explosives, but sensors are a better solution for continuous screening, he says.

“Dogs have a short attention span and can be distracted,’’ Gregory says. “For the first hour or so, they’re really good at detecting explosives. Then their minds wander. It’s like a little kid. What our sensors do is continuously sniff round-the-clock.’’

With the funding from Homeland Security, Gregory can continue working to protect people in Our Backyard throughout the world. “URI professors and students are doing cutting-edge research in the areas of explosive characterization and detection,’’ he says. “We’re trying to make buildings, stadiums, airports and subways safer for the travelers.’’