U.S. Spy Agencies Seek Tech to Identify Deadly Chemicals From 30 Meters Away

Three teams are developing rival technologies to combat explosives, nerve gases, and other threats

3 min read
Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA/Getty Images
Careful Work: Investigators examine a bench in England for chemical traces of a nerve agent after two victims were found there.
Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA/Getty Images

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who became a double agent for the United Kingdom, and his daughter, Yulia, weren’t the only people affected by a nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England, in March. Nearly 40 others were sickened, including three police officers who were hospitalized, one of them for more than two weeks. A swarm of hazmat-suited chemical warfare experts inspected every place the Skripals had been recently in the hope of finding out what happened and whether there was still a danger to the public.

U.S. intelligence agencies have been on the hunt for a technology that would make such investigations faster and safer and perhaps even prevent this kind of attack altogether. The Standoff ILluminator for Measuring Absorbance and Reflectance Infrared Light Signatures (SILMARILS) program at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity should conclude, by mid-⁠2021, with a possible solution: a portable scanner that can identify a fingerprint’s worth of a library of some 500 chemicals—spanning the dangerous (the explosive PETN) to the mundane (caffeine)—on surfaces like car doors from a distance of 5 to 30 meters.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

Stay ahead of the latest trends in technology. Become an IEEE member.

This article is for IEEE members only. Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions

A Circuit to Boost Battery Life

Digital low-dropout voltage regulators will save time, money, and power

11 min read
Image of a battery held sideways by pliers on each side.
Edmon de Haro

YOU'VE PROBABLY PLAYED hundreds, maybe thousands, of videos on your smartphone. But have you ever thought about what happens when you press “play”?

The instant you touch that little triangle, many things happen at once. In microseconds, idle compute cores on your phone's processor spring to life. As they do so, their voltages and clock frequencies shoot up to ensure that the video decompresses and displays without delay. Meanwhile, other cores, running tasks in the background, throttle down. Charge surges into the active cores' millions of transistors and slows to a trickle in the newly idled ones.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less