Using Lasers to Find Land Mines and IEDs

A laser could ionize a distant puff of air and thus safely detect the fumes from buried explosives

10 min read
Using Lasers to Find Land Mines and IEDs

A mine-clearer's work still depends on metal detectors and sniffer dogs, with all the dangers that this entails. Technology may provide a better way to do the job.

Photo: United States Marine Corps

Today we rely on dogs to sniff out hidden explosives. The problem is, you can't debrief a dog, so you can't identify the kind of explosive or even be sure that the animal is smelling explosives rather than packaging material. And who wants to risk the lives of dogs and their handlers? If you had an instrument that could safely identify any explosive at a distance—with the doglike power to detect molecules at concentrations of just one part in billions—you could get around these difficulties.

The problem of land mines is certainly not new, nor is even the problem of hidden homemade bombs, called improvised explosive devices (IEDs), although the latter came to prominence during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now these ghastly devices are proliferating around the world: The number of such bombings has increased from close to zero a decade ago to more than 4 000 per year in Afghanistan alone. It's a concern that will be with us for a long time, and as such it deserves serious efforts to address. Nor is the problem merely one of war and sabotage. Any device capable of sniffing explosives at a distance could also monitor all sorts of peacetime poisons and pollutants—carbon monoxide, mercury vapor, the oxides of nitrogen and of sulfur, and of course carbon dioxide and methane, the principal greenhouse gases.

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