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Feature Article: R&D Collaboration Leads to Award-Winning Chemical Weapons Detection Tech

Feature Article: R&D Collaboration Leads to Award-Winning Chemical Weapons Detection Tech

Release Date: 
March 18, 2021

It is always nice to be honored for a job well done—even better to share the recognition with your friends. That’s just what happened when an innovative new chemical detection technology called SEDONA, or SpEctroscopic Detection of Nerve Agents, was recognized as a 2020 R&D 100 Award-winner.

SEDONA is the result of a joint research and development effort between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and our partners at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). When deployed at security checkpoints, border crossings, and ports of entry across the country, SEDONA will enhance DHS’s abilities to detect and intercept dangerous chemicals and nerve agents. We’d call this a win-win.

“DHS staff members in the field need to be able to safely and efficiently scan for and detect chemicals, nerve agents, and related substances that can pose a threat to our citizens,” said S&T program manager Dr. Don Bansleben. “To ensure that they always have cutting-edge tools at their disposal, we continuously work with our various partners and subject matter experts to review new and improved technologies that can help these frontline operators address and mitigate emerging threats.”

A LANL scientist uses SEDONA to scan the contents of a bottle for the presence of dangerous chemical weapons.SEDONA is a user-friendly, portable, prototype chemical agent detection system that uses an ultra-low-field nuclear magnetic resonance technique to quickly and accurately detect chemical threats in smaller-sized bottles and containers—without needing to open them.

“SEDONA works by scanning and analyzing liquids to check for the presence of specific chemical elements that are key components in organophosphorus nerve agents and related chemical threats,” said Dr. Bob Williams, LANL Bioscience Division team lead. “These elements respond in very specific ways when they are exposed to SEDONA’s electromagnetic field. Each one has a unique radio frequency, also known as a ‘signature,’ at which they resonate when SEDONA’s electromagnetic radiation passes through them.”

The system recognizes these signatures, and by measuring their amounts and ratios, determines whether a nerve or chemical agent is present.  Benign liquids such as shampoo, toothpaste, and bottles of water and other beverages will not contain chemical elements of interest. Nerve agents and related chemical threats, however, will exhibit a unique signature, known as “J-coupling,” which will be immediately detected and red-flagged by SEDONA in less than 10 seconds.

“SEDONA was recognized with an R&D 100 Award due to the fact that it’s a groundbreaking technology—the first of its kind,” explained Williams. “Until now, there has never been a tool with SEDONA’s capabilities.”

“We believe in the importance of fostering technological and scientific advancements in the fields of checkpoint, border, and port security,” explained Bansleben. “This is why we supported LANL in their efforts to develop SEDONA. We’re very proud of their achievements and are thrilled that they were recognized with this prestigious award.”

Preliminary testing data from LANL indicates that SEDONA has the potential to be a promising secondary screening tool at security checkpoints, border crossings, and ports in the near future. However, before it’s  implemented in the field, the LANL team is working to expand SEDONA’s screening capabilities to detect key elements that are found in other types of nerve agents, liquid explosives, and opioids; automate the process; and conduct more field testing to confirm its efficacy.

Bansleben noted that SEDONA could be useful in a wide range of fields and venues.

“Federal agencies may find SEDONA to be a versatile screening tool for helping to mitigate the unlawful entry, dissemination, and use of nerve and chemical agents, liquid explosives, and drugs,” said Bansleben. “However, it also has the potential to be effective in other settings such as courthouses, sporting arenas, correctional facilities, government buildings, and any other highly-trafficked areas where security and safety are of the utmost priority.”

For related media requests, please contact STmedia@hq.dhs.gov.

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