Detecting high power explosives to improve U.S. transportation security checkpoints

Tierney Sugrue
Tierney Sugrue uses analytical chemistry machines to ensure the accurate detection of powerful explosives. (Photo courtesy of Richard Zoll, TSL)

Standing in line at the airport, most people don’t usually think about the intricacies behind the security machinery scanning their items, but Tierney Sugrue is one of the few who does.

As a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, Sugrue conducted research on a high profile national security issue: the detection of explosives and the machinery used to detect them. Sugrue, a chemistry major at Stevenson University, Md., relocated to the Transportation Security Laboratory (TSL) in Atlantic City, N.J. for the summer to participate in the program.

At the TSL alongside her mentors, Jason Stairs, Ph.D., and John Brady, Ph.D., Sugrue assisted with research using thermal desorption mass spectrometry (TD-MS) and headspace gas chromatography (GC) to improve the quality control of explosive trace detectors for RDX and related explosives.

RDX is a term for a Research Department explosive used in the military and industry. First developed in World War II, the high power explosive can be destructive and deadly. It was used in terrorism attacks in the 1990s and early 2000s, and it has been found to be toxic for those who ingest it. From both a national security and public health standpoint, it is vital to detect this explosive.

“For explosive trace detectors to be deployed to airports, ship terminals, ferry terminals, train stations or any transportation security checkpoint, the performance of the system must first be tested,” Sugrue explained. “Our main goal was to ensure the systems will operate accurately. To accomplish this, we used TD-MS to understand the detection limits of RDX explosives, and we used GC to confirm the purity of the detected explosives.”

TD-MS, a process that vaporizes solids and chemically identifies them, was used to measure the maximum and minimum concentration of RDX that could be detected by machines, which can be used later to improve security machine settings.

The other process, GC, was used to analyze and identify gas solutions of materials that store explosives. This knowledge can be used to account for the presence of impure substances that an explosive may be contained within and to continue standardizing explosive trace detector testing.

In the future, Sugrue plans to pursue a master’s degree in forensic science, then transition into a research career. After this summer, she is considering if that research career may include a future position in trace detection and explosives chemistry at the TSL.

“I can see myself pursuing a career in this area, whether at TSL, or somewhere else,” Sugrue said. “I really enjoyed the research, and it has been invaluable in helping me to explore future career options.”

Her advice for future HS-STEM applicants is to work hard, apply to the program when eligible and take advantage of everything the research center has to offer.

“I really enjoyed learning how to use the different instruments and apply the analytical techniques in the laboratory,” Sugrue said. “The whole experience has boosted my confidence, laboratory expertise and professional development, and it has been one of the best decisions I could have made in my undergraduate career.”
The 10-week summer internship provides students majoring in a homeland security related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) discipline the opportunity to conduct research at federal facilities in a DHS area throughout the U.S.

The HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.