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Laud those using science to thwart terror
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 9/12/2007 12:14 AM

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With the nation this week remembering the terrorist attacks six years ago and vaguely disconcerted that we remain at serious risk from another, there is a least one group doing more than talking about thwarting such activities.

While marginally trained security agents ask grandmothers to remove their tennis shoes and throw away their hand lotion at airports in reaction to terror tries long past, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory are working assiduously to prevent the next one.

Scientists having been working since the Gulf War of 1991 to develop technology that would help detect and identify various chemicals and toxins that could be used against citizenry and armies in chemical warfare. With the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on Americans and terror attacks grown more frequent and more lethal around the world, that search took on more urgency.

Now, scientists have successfully tested a passive millimeter-wave spectrometer, a device that can identify specific chemicals from several kilometers away and in concentrations as low as 100 parts per million. Every chemical has a unique electromagnetic signature that can be read after capture, and such detection could help in the detection of, and destruction of, the facilities being used to produce such lethal weapons.

Better yet, the collection can be done passively, or furtively, without the knowledge of those being tested. Researchers believe the equipment can eventually be produced in battery-operated versions and can be used for non-defensive uses such as pollution control.

Argonne is currently in discussions with the Defense Department and others about producing the spectrometers for use by those for whom the detection of toxic chemicals is paramount to safety, military in war zones being an obvious one.

While the millimeter-wave spectrometer is its most ready-to-go research result, Argonne is also working on projects that would improve the survival rate after a nuclear or chemical attack, including a super-gel that would help remove from buildings the radiation left behind by a "dirty bomb," non-ionizing forms of radiation to create better airport scanning devices, and blood and water cleaning solutions for biological warfare victims.

Some of this research may never produce a usable result, but as seems likely in the case of the millimeter-wave spectrometer, some could prevent serious loss of life by allowing detection and intervention before such lethal chemicals could be used by purveyors of terror against their chosen victims.

This week's anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center and the damage to the Pentagon reminded us again of the cost of ignoring obvious warnings or the single-mindedness of our enemies. We should be thankful there are some among us, like the scientists at Argonne, who are working to help prevent such lethal efforts in the future rather than reacting after the fact, as we were forced to do six years ago.