NIST Test Samples Aid Explosives Detection

This non-explosive standard reference material simulates the size and behavior of residues left after handling the explosives PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) and TATP (triacetone triperoxide).

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently released another standard reference material to help in detecting two explosive compounds known to be used by terrorists; this is the third such SRM to date from the agency.

The new test samples simulate the size and behavior of residues left after handling the explosives PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) and TATP (triacetone triperoxide). NIST's announcement said instrument developers, academic researchers, and government labs can use them to validate new detector designs.

The residues from handling the explosive compounds may be on someone's skin or clothing. They are "invisible to the naked eye and difficult to remove but may be detected by sensitive explosives detectors," according to NIST. "Airport security personnel collect residues with handheld swipe wands. The swipes are then heated to vaporize the explosives, and the vapors analyzed in a tabletop detector. Current detectors typically use a technique called ion mobility mass spectrometry that can recognize specific ionized chemicals based on their chemical properties. Both PETN and TATP are relatively difficult to detect in the field. The compounds were used in failed terrorist attacks by the 'shoe bomber' in 2002 and the 'underwear bomber' in 2009."

Its announcement of the reference said the samples are made from inert particles coated with a trace amount of the two explosives.

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