Liquid security: MRI at the airport

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  • Published: Dec 1, 2013
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Liquid security: MRI at the airport


MagRay engineer Larry Schultz puts a bottle of surrogate material that mimic home made explosives into the MagRay bottle scanner.

Researchers in the USA have developed a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique that could provide a much-needed simple way to scan liquids carried by passengers or in hold luggage for enhanced airport security and security elsewhere.

By adding low-power X-ray data to the security mix alongside MRI, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico believe they have found a way to boost airport security and remove the risk of passengers smuggling noxious and potentially explosive materials on board. The development was funded in part by the US Department of Homeland Security's "Science and Technology Directorate".

The new system, which goes by the charmingly sci-fi name of MagRay, allows security officers to quickly and accurately distinguish between liquids that appear identical on visual inspection. For instance, that bottle of white wine could just as easily be a bottle in which the ethanolic beverage has been swapped for nitromethane, which might be used to produce an explosive. Both are clear, almost colourless liquids. And, while white wine has its own associated risks those are not necessarily of an acute nature and so unlike nitromethane, white wine is allowed onboard commercial aircraft, while nitromethane is strictly prohibited. The MagRay technology developed by LANL's Michelle Espy, Larry Schultz and their team would allow airport security to distinguish between a Pinot Grigio and something more pungently risky.

Challenging liquids

"One of the challenges for the screening of liquids in an airport is that, while traditional X-ray based baggage scanners provide high throughput with good resolution of some threats [metal objects such as guns and knives], there is limited sensitivity and selectivity for liquid discrimination," explains physicist Espy who leads the MagRay project. "While MRI can differentiate liquids, there is a certain class of explosives, those that are complex, homemade, or may contain mixtures of all kinds of stuff that are more challenging."

The team has now demonstrated the MagRay system in action and showed how an easy to operate interface can be embedded into the technology to make it straightforward to carry out scanning of liquids with only minimal training requirements. They are now investigating how to take this technology from the LANL laboratory bench to the commercial world and ultimately the airport security queue. The MagRay might even one day allow airport security to remove the liquid limits on hand luggage for passengers.

Proton content

Espy is enthusiastic about how well it works. "We’ve been able to look at a really broad class of explosives," he says "We've been able to look through all kinds of packaging, and we've unlocked a new parameter - proton content - that’s not available to either X-ray or MRI alone." He explains that the MagRay system can investigate what the team refers to as a three-dimensional space of MRI, proton content, and X-ray density within which different liquids and mixtures of liquids find themselves in a different place within the space. "With those measurements we find that benign liquids and threat liquids separate real nicely in this space, so we can detect them quickly with a very high level of confidence," adds MagRay engineer Schultz.

Related Links

LANL Videos, 2013: "Los Alamos Shows Airport Security Technology at Work"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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