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Smart Dust Senses Bioweapons

How can you protect yourself from biological and chemical weapons? Forget duct tape. The answer is blowing in the wind.
March 12, 2003

Have you ever noticed the sheen on a beetle wing? If you have, you were probably struck by its unusual iridescence. Despite what your eye sees, however, that color is not a “natural” one. Beetles “don’t have a pigment,” says Michael Sailor, a professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego. Instead, he explains, the color is produced by two other properties: optical interference-the same phenomenon behind the colors in rainbows and soap bubbles-and elaborate structures in the wing surface.

By artificially mimicking this phenomenon, Sailor intends to make more than rainbows. With funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), he’s working to turn nanoparticles imbued with iridescent colors into “fingerprints” that can be added to explosives and other chemicals-making it possible to trace a bomb or an illegal drug back to a single manufacturer. He’s also working to make the particles reflect signature colors when they encounter specific pathogens in air or water-to create a cheap, disposable sensor for detecting chemical and biological weapons.

To make the particles, which Sailor calls “smart dust,” he first creates a filter for light in the surface of a silicon wafer about the size of a quarter. He places the wafer in a conductive solution, and then electrochemically corrodes it with an alternating current. Sailor says, “as [the corrosion] drills down into the silicon, it bottlenecks and opens up again, then bottlenecks and opens up again.” The result is a delicately etched network of parallel pores about two nanometers in diameter. Using ultrasound vibrations, Sailor then crumbles the wafer into particles about the width of a hair.

When dispersed in air or water, ordinary dust particles scatter light in every direction. But when illuminated with a laser, Sailor explains, the smart dust appears quite different. “You’ll get this one sharp, very precise wavelength of light for a given angle coming in and bouncing off that surface,” he says. “The colors that result are incredibly vibrant, strong [and] highly reflective.” By varying the current, the length of the process and the composition of the solution, Sailor can create filters that produce millions of specific colors. Each color is determined by the refractive index of those complex layers in the silicon. Sailor says the refractive index is like a barcode a laser can read to determine the composition of the dust.

Sailor’s work has caught the interest of DARPA because of its battlefield and counter-terror applications. The particles could be applied as a “tag” to certain bomb-making materials, so that when a bomb blows up, investigators can scan a crime scene for the specific smart-dust particles. “Most of the stuff that is used in terrorism activities is diverted from legitimate purposes,” says Sailor. If different manufacturers incorporated uniquely coded smart dust, the type of dust found at the bomb scene would indicate where the bomb materials were purchased and provide a clue to the identity of the terrorists who made the bomb.

Similar tactics can be used to track down materials used to create illegal drugs. Sailor says dealers and illegal manufacturers buy what are known as “precursors” from legitimate chemical warehouses. If those agents were treated with differently coded smart dust, he says tracing the drug back to the original warehouse and then to the buyer would be much easier.

While smart dust may serve as a unique chemical fingerprint, it could be even more useful as a sensor, Sailor says. That’s because the particles can be made to reflect light differently in the presence of certain chemicals-a change that can identify chemical and biological contaminants, including pollution and biological weapons.

As a demonstration, Sailor encoded the dust to detect MTBE, an additive in gasoline. “MTBE is not destroyed biologically,” says Sailor, “so once it gets in the ground, it stays there and can easily end up in drinking water.” A company called Trex Industries has licensed the process and is developing the technology to monitor pollutants and pesticides.

Toxic nerve agents like Sarin, the chemical used in the Tokyo subway attack carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, are particularly sensitive to smart dust. Because pesticides like DDT are chemically similar to nerve gases, Sailor says the particles can be prepared to detect them as well.

Smart dust can be deployed several ways. For environmental applications, Sailor says the dust “can be sprinkled on walls or put in paint that coats surfaces.” The treated surface would then light up when, for example, gas vapors reach undesirable levels in the air around an oil processing facility. In combat scenarios, he says it would be easy to paint the wings of [a drone] with the dust, fly it through air that may be laden with nerve agents, and hit it with a laser from a safe distance away. In terrorist situations like the World Trade Center, Sailor says robots could be painted with the dust, equipped with a self-monitoring camera, and sent into a wrecked building to detect natural gas leaks. A similar tactic could be used in detecting deadly agents like anthrax that could have contaminated a building.

At present the dust cannot be detected by lasers from more than 25 meters away. That’s not a problem for environmental applications, but it is a major hurdle for battlefield use. So Sailor and his team are working to make the dust detectable from a kilometer or more-and say they may succeed within a year. They are also working to ensure that the smart dust preserves its properties in harsh outdoor conditions or even through an explosion. If he succeeds, Sailor will have created the total package: dust that’s smart and tough.

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