Need an explosives detector? Just print one out.

It’s amazing how the least common denominator is often the best solution to a very technical problem; it’s just a matter of discovering it. In warfare, that discovery can mean life or death.

One recent case in point was the discovery that the Silly String kids love to play with is actually a perfect defense against tripwires. Soldiers spray it into a room with a suspected booby trap and the colorful string will hang down from across any tripwires. The string itself is far too light to activate the traps.

But this week we learned of an even more impressive use of technology invented by scientists at Georgia Tech Research Institute. They were able to use an inkjet printer to create a paper-based explosive detector that actually works as well as the expensive and fragile machines that perform that task right now.

That’s right: In the very near future, if the military needs more explosive detectors, it can simply print them out.

How it works: A standard inkjet printer is loaded up so that it can print carbon nanotubes into a pattern on standard paper. Or something slightly more durable, such as plastic, could also be used. The nanotubes are coated with a conductive polymer that makes them attract and detect ammonia in very small trace amounts, down to five parts per million.

Ammonia is the active ingredient in most explosives, although the small nanotube-based sensors can be coated in such a way as to detect other compounds, too.

That’s pretty impressive, but it gets better. Those little nanotubes are like electronic building blocks, so you can actually print them into circuit patterns with antenna and other components. And, presto, you now have a way for the paper to communicate its findings back to an operator. You just need to build a very rudimentary device that can receive the signal. And if you need more detectors, just print more out.

In this case, paper can be used to save money and lives, and to give those inkjet printers a new use in government circles.

Once work on the paper sensors is completed, creating more explosives detectors shouldn’t cost much more than printing a document, could be done anywhere an inkjet printer can be deployed (there are mobile models), and would require almost no specialized training to use.

So we salute the Georgia Tech scientists this week for a job very well done.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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