Search Menu
Photonics Media Photonics Marketplace Photonics Spectra BioPhotonics EuroPhotonics Vision Spectra Photonics Showcase Photonics ProdSpec Photonics Handbook

Nanosensor Enhances Bomb Detection

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email Comments
A new plasmon laser sensor can identify extremely minute concentrations of explosives, as well as explosives that are typically difficult to detect.

“Optical explosive sensors are very sensitive and compact,” said Dr. Xiang Zhang of the University of California, Berkeley, whose team developed the system. “The ability to magnify such a small trace of an explosive to create a detectable signal is a major development in plasmon sensor technology, which is one of the most powerful tools we have today.”

The sensor consists of a 50-nm cadmium sulfide semiconductor separated from the metal surface by an 8-nm dielectric gap layer. Images courtesy of UC Berkeley.

The nanoscale sensor consists of a layer of cadmium sulfide that acts as a semiconductor and is laid on top of a sheet of silver, with a layer of magnesium fluoride in the middle.

In designing the sensor, the researchers took advantage of the chemical makeup of many explosives, particularly nitro compounds such as TNT and dinitrotoluene (DNT).

These nitro groups are unstable, according to the researchers, and also electron-deficient. This increases the interaction of the molecules with natural surface defects on the semiconductor. The new plasmon device works by detecting the increased intensity in the light signal that occurs as a result of this interaction.

“We think that higher electron deficiency of explosives leads to a stronger interaction with the semiconductor sensor,” said researcher Dr. Sadao Ota, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Tokyo who is a former doctoral candidate in Zhang's lab.

In the study, the researchers tested the sensor on 2,4-dinitrotoluene — also called DNT, which is the chemical compound CH3C6H3(NO2)2 — ammonium nitrate and nitrobenzene. They found that the device successfully detected the airborne chemicals at concentrations of 0.67 parts per billion, 0.4 parts per billion and 7.2 parts per million, respectively.

The cadmium sulfide semiconductor on top of the silver metal surface, as shown under a microscope.

The researchers said they are also hopeful that the laser sensor will be able to detect pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN, an explosive compound of plastics and other materials that the researchers said has been used by terrorists).

It is quite powerful, they added, and because it is plastic, it is not detectable by x-ray machines when not connected to metal detonators.

“Our technology could lead to a bomb-detecting chip for a handheld device that can detect the tiny trace vapor in the air of the explosive’s small molecules,” said researcher Dr. Ren-Min Ma, an assistant professor of physics at Peking University who also is a former postdoctoral candidate in Zhang's lab.

The researchers said the new sensor could have applications beyond chemical and explosives detection, such as in biomolecular research.

The work was funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research Multi-University Research Initiative program. The research was published in Nature Nanotechnology (doi: 10.1038/nnano.2014.135).

For more information, visit

Photonics Spectra
Oct 2014
cadmium sulfide
An inorganic compound, yellow to orange in color, that fluoresces strongly enough when bombarded by a high-current-density electron beam to be used as a high-intensity light source.
A charged elementary particle of an atom; the term is most commonly used in reference to the negatively charged particle called a negatron. Its mass at rest is me = 9.109558 x 10-31 kg, its charge is 1.6021917 x 10-19 C, and its spin quantum number is 1/2. Its positive counterpart is called a positron, and possesses the same characteristics, except for the reversal of the charge.
magnesium fluoride
A colorless, crystalline compound whose low refractive index (n = 1.38) makes it effective as a lens antireflection coating when deposited by thermal evaporation in a near vacuum. This process develops a coating that is robust and stable, though only a few molecules thick.
Calculated quantity of the entire longitudinal wave of a solid substance's electron gas.
Americascadmium sulfideCaliforniachemicalsdinitrotolueneDNTelectronengineeringexplosivesimagingmagnesium fluoridematerialsmechanicalnanonitroOffice of Scientific ResearchPETNplasmonResearch & TechnologysemiconductorsSensors & DetectorssilverTech PulseTNTUniversity of California BerkeleyUS Air ForceXiang ZhangSadao OtaCH3C6H3(NO2)2ammonium nitratenitrobenzenepentaerythritol tetranitrateRen-Min MaMulti-University Research Initiativelasers

back to top
Facebook Twitter Instagram LinkedIn YouTube RSS
©2020 Photonics Media, 100 West St., Pittsfield, MA, 01201 USA, [email protected]

Photonics Media, Laurin Publishing
x Subscribe to Photonics Spectra magazine - FREE!
We use cookies to improve user experience and analyze our website traffic as stated in our Privacy Policy. By using this website, you agree to the use of cookies unless you have disabled them.