The ACRO-PET tester – ‘It’s for anybody who finds suspicious powder and goes ‘what is that?”In the era of global terrorism, one of the main problems facing security forces has been the inability to detect homemade bombs.
Richard Reid, the “Shoe Bomber”, tried to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami using a peroxide-based explosive Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP) hidden in his shoe but was fortunately stopped on board before detonating the explosive. Less fortunately, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) containing TATP have been used in many terrorist attacks worldwide including the 2005 attack on the London public transport system, the 2004 Madrid train bombings and dozens of suicide bombings in Israel.
Until now, TATP-based bombs – which are 80% as powerful as TNT – have been virtually impossible to identify, as they do not contain nitro groups, are colorless, and have a density and appearance similar to sugar. What makes the situation more severe is that these kinds of bombs can be concocted at home from materials that are easily obtained in large quantities from supermarkets, hardware and drugstores, making them the explosive of choice for terrorists worldwide.
That’s why the announcement by Tel-Aviv based company Acro that they’ve completed production of a peroxide-based explosives tester which can quickly and positively identify TATP explosives has been met with enthusiasm by government security bodies throughout the world.
According to the inventor of the device and Acro’s scientific adviser Ehud Keinan, the handheld, disposable ACRO-PET provide a viable method of combating the TATP threat and is designed for any kind of security agent – from soldiers in Iraq to airport security people.
“It’s for anybody who finds suspicious powder and goes ‘what is that?’ – whether it’s policemen or soldiers – it may not happen every day, but it does happen frequently,” Keinan told ISRAEL21c.
The ACRO-PET is the culmination of over 20 years of research by Keinan, an associate professor at the Technion in Haifa, and a former professor at the Scripps Research Institute in California. The origins of that research sound like something out of a spy novel, as Keinan recounts it.
“About 20 years ago, I got a late night call from someone in the Israeli secret service – the Shabak – who asked me to help in a national effort to combat a new phenomenon in terrorism, improvised explosives. At that time TATP was very new – the first known incident was a bombing by Palestinian terrorists against Israelis at Beit Hadas in Hebron in 1980,” Keinan said.
Following that call, Keinan took on the project and since then has worked in a very secretive capacity with both Israeli and American security organizations including the, IDF, Israel Police FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security in an effort to develop a device that could test for TATP.
“I received a patent on the technology developed at the Technion for a tester. It’s not a detector – but when you have a material on a surface that’s suspect, you can verify immediately whether the substance is TATP,” said Keinan.
According to the researcher, the cloak around the project has been gradually unveiled – intentionally.
“Until two years ago, everything we did was highly classified. But then a decision was taken to go public with part of the program. The terrorists had all the information anyway, and on the other hand, if we released information to the media, it would help in the effort to increase public attention and pressure from politicians to do something and allocating funds towards fighting terror in this way. That was considered more important than preventing the terrorists from getting the information.”
As part of the more open disclosure policy, Keinan decided to launch a private company in order to commercialize his research and he founded Acro in February. He immediately tapped Yami Tarsi, to be president & CEO. Tarsi has nineteen years of expertise gained as a physicist and a further 15 years as CEO of various companies in the aerospace and high tech sectors.
“I was approached by Keinan who offered me the challenging job of setting up a company based on his inventions, Tarsi told ISRAEL21c.”And we’ve succeeded in turning his technology into a commercial product. In a nutshell, the PET is a hand held disposable device which IDs peroxide-based explosives such as PATP.”
“Most systems in the world today are based on identifying regular explosives containing nitrites – they usually do a special analysis looking for a chemical signature,” explained Tarsi. “However TATP doesn’t contain any nitrites, therefore it’s not detectable by any commercial equipment. Thus it’s on the top of the list of concerns of authorities responsible for protecting civilian populations.”
According to both Keinan and Tarsi, research is underway at Acro to develop another version of the ACRO-PET based on the same technology which will be a detector – or sniffer- that searches out the TATP substance.
But for now, the first shipments of the ACRO-Pet are being sent for evaluation in the US and Europe by such bodies as the US Department of Homeland Security.
“It’s now being sent to various organizations around the world to be tested and get responses. We’re ready to ship several thousand units for use as soon as we get the OK,” said Keinan.
Added Tarsi: “Our approach is based on good relations with authorities in the leading counter-terror countries in the world – countries with the highest concern about anti-terror activities – it goes beyond geography.”
“These countries are highly regulated- and we wouldn’t be able to sell any of these devices without it going through a certification process. We’re in the stage of sending out kits for them to test. It’s taking place within weeks.”
Tarsi said that his dream is to see the ACRO-PET in every police car in the US, and in every army platoon.
“It should be standard equipment – at least one soldier should be equipped so when in Iraq, there’s a search going on, and they come across some unidentifiable material, they’ll be able to know in 20 seconds if it’s dangerous,” he said.
With its main offices in Nevada, and a subsidiary in Ramat Gan called AcroSec, Acro – whose advisory board includes former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak – is poised to aggressively enter the market of explosives detection and identification.
“As part of out eventual growth, we want to become an important supplier in the field. We’re already looking to buy or join a venture with another type of technology in that field in or order to be able to provide a wider range of solutions to authorities,” said Tarsi, adding that they’re in an advanced stage of negotiations with one company.
“There’s a story that goes around about a customs officer in the south of France who was celebrating because he thought he had uncovered a 1kg. bag of heroin. An hour later, the bag exploded in his face,” said Tarsi. “Even if it does half of what I’m telling, the PET is way better than what is available now.”