April 18, 2004, Updated September 13, 2012

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon inspects a model of an engineless, nano-RPV (remote piloted vehicle) during a visit to the Technion last year.The worldwide fight against terror is not only taking place on the battlefield. In the labs of Israeli universities like the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, scientists are developing progressive methods to deal with the increasing unconventional threats to the Western world.

According to Ha’aretz the dean of the Technion chemistry faculty, Professor Ehud Keinan, recently shared his information on some technological breakthroughs with the U.S. umbrella organization for security technology – the TSWG (Technical Support Working Group) – which includes about 80 organizations that specialize in security (for example, the CIA, FBI, Federal Aviation Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.)

This umbrella organization is currently preparing a tender for American companies to create a device for identifying explosives that is based on a prototype developed by Keinan’s staff. The device is based on an incident that occurred in 1986 and has occupied Keinan ever since.

A pipe bomb was placed by terrorists near Hebron, and a police sapper was called to the scene who discovered an unidentified white substance near the device. The bomb detonated, the sapper was killed, and an investigation found that the white explosive was TATP (triacetone triperoxide, commonly known as acetone peroxide). This type of explosive has been around since the beginning of the 20th century, but this was the first time that terror organizations had used it.

Years later, in 2001, FBI special agent Margaret Cronin testified that tests indicate the sneakers worn by the notorious ‘Shoe Bomber’ Richard Reid aboard American Airlines Flight 63 contained TATP.

TATP is an extremely dangerous explosive because the slightest friction is liable to cause it to detonate, according to Keinan. “The world is exposed to this material and we are helpless,” he told Ha’aretz. “If someone wants to bring down a Boeing 747, no one will stop him. And security officials know this.”

But in an article soon to be published in a scientific journal, Keinan describes for the first time the way this material works. When TATP is detonated, each solid molecule turns into four gas molecules. This means that within one microsecond, a huge volume of gas is created, and this is what causes the explosion. Most of the devices for detecting explosives operate on a group of specific chemical (nitro) materials present in all explosives. “We have developed a hand-held device called PET (Peroxide Explosives Tester) that detects TATP, and we are now working to develop a sensor for advance detection of explosives,” Keinan said

In other departments of the Technion, equally innovative advancements are taking place. At the National Building Research Institute at the Technion, there is a laboratory for studying reinforced structures. There, a simulator cannon developed by Technion engineers, which fires special projectiles of large diameter, was built to test the resistance and strength of different types of concrete.

The head of the institute, Professor David Yankelevsky, says that the researchers have succeeded in creating a new generation of concrete that is more likely to block missiles and shells from penetrating a structure. The institute’s researchers share this information with the IDF Home Front Command, which is responsible for the construction of secure rooms in new homes, and with the IDF units charged with constructing army outposts along the border.

The institute is involved in the development of standards for planning bomb shelters and other structures designed to resist impact blast and shrapnel. In the 1990s, the institute participated in a series of experiments conducted with the Home Front Command and American security officials to test the impact of an explosion (like than of a Scud missile) near or in residential buildings. Based on information gleaned from this research, a decision was taken on the type of concrete to use in constructing the new IDF outposts along the border with Lebanon.

The institute is also involved in the operational requirements being discussed for redeployment along the separation fence, where resistance is likely. “We are now beginning research on thin-membrane elements that are capable of effectively blocking gunfire from light weapons directed at residential neighborhoods. It is in an initial development stage. Perhaps we’ll also develop mobile elements using thin panels mounted on a concrete base,” said Yankelevsky:

The institute is also discussing developing protective vests for infantry soldiers made of concrete plates instead of ceramic elements. Yankelevsky lists the advantages: The cost of producing the concrete panels is less than the cost of making ceramic panels; from battlefield experience, the ceramic element shatters when hit and can no longer be used, while the concrete element will remain whole and not disintegrate. When the experiments are completed on the compound to be used for creating the bullet-proof concrete elements, it will represent a breakthrough in the field of personal protection.

At another part of the university, Professor Daniel Weihs of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering, looks to nature for inspiration on developing technologies. “I’ve been studying nature for many years to learn about all kinds of phenomena of fauna and flora that can be applied to everyday human life,” he explains.

Last year, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Technion, he was shown a model of one of Weihs’s inventions – an engineless, nano-RPV (remote piloted vehicle).

The RPV was modeled after the way in which dandelion seeds fly in the wind. This flower produces thousands of seeds about 5-6mm long. The seeds are shaped like an umbrella blown inside out by the wind.

The wings of the seeds are made of very thin capillaries, with spaces between them that create air movement to help their flight. The width of each fiber is a third of a micron, thinner than a human hair.

To test the idea, a model was built at 50 times the scale. Polymer fibers were used instead of the seed fibers of the dandelion. During the next stage, stronger fibers were developed, made of titanium and weighing a tenth of a milligram. The results showed that a nano-RPV capable of climbing to an altitude of 100 meters could be built without an engine.

Weihs believes that the nano-RPV can be used for several purposes. One potential application would be to fire a swarm of nano-RPVs from the rifle magazine of a grenade launcher into an area contaminated by gases and use the nano-RPVs to identify the type of gas. When the RPV comes into contact with the gas, it will change in color, thus providing a visual demarcation of the area contaminated by the gas. Thanks to their light weight, the RPVs would be carried with the wind, together with the cloud of gas, and would continue to indicate the radius of danger. This solution could also be used in the event of a highway mishap involving a gas tanker.

(Based on an article in Ha’aretz)

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Jason Harris

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