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Government Lab Explores How Nano Devices Could Better Safeguard the Public From National Security Threats

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Officials To Hold Special Nano-Security Symposium at Nanotech2006.

Could the nanotechnology components or processes that today are helping build flat-screen TVs, recycling wastewater or making spill-proof jeans help protect you and your family from cracks in national security — viral outbreaks, accidental hazardous leaks, or even attempted terrorist attacks?

The Micro- and Nano-Technology Section (MNTS) of the Engineering Directorate at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) will hold a first-of-its-kind public symposium to answer this question during Nanotech2006 in Boston, May 7-11.

Nano World News spoke with Nano-Security Symposium organizer Dr. Anantha Krishnan to learn more about nano’s potential to address national security. Krishnan is also the Director of R&D for Micro- and Nano-Technology in the Engineering Directorate at LLNL.

Before we begin, Krishnan first offers this disclaimer — “This symposium is in no way endorsed, supported or sponsored by any of the federal government agencies involved with national security,” Krishnan said. “We at the MNTS are interested in learning how national security problems might be better addressed through the use of integrated systems that may rely on nanotechnology components. MNTS has had a long history of contributing novel micro- and nano-technologies to bio-sensor systems that have been fielded by LLNL.”

Inside Nanotech’s National Security Opportunities – Hint: Think Integrated Design

Now, let’s turn to Nanotech2006’s Nano-Security event, formally titled “The Micro/Nano-Technology for National Security Applications Symposium.”

Krishnan sees three areas where better-designed nano devices could play a much bigger role: (a) Biological and Chemical Defense; (b) Explosives Detection; and (c) Nuclear and Radiological Defense. But, before you jump to email Krishnan about your latest nano-sensor, don’t! Krishnan says the lab already knows about how cool nano sensors are. “We are now looking for a fully-integrated system design consisting of nano-technology components that offer unique performance advantages.”

Krishnan’s integrated Holy Grail for nano-system design would cover all aspects – (a) potential deployment scenarios for such systems, (b) day-to-day operations, (c) ease-of-use, (d) integrated processing and communications capabilities, (e) energy-saving and compact designs and even (f) user-training. Krishnan puts it this way: “The lab is always concerned with producing deliverables that impact the national security problem, so when we look at new technologies we ask the question, ‘What…technologies are out there that could help us improve the quality and performance of our deliverables?’ ”

The Nano-Security Symposium – “Bridging the Gap”

Krishnan calls this linkage of harvesting emerging technologies with the lab’s national security deliverables “bridging the gap.” He says the key to nano’s ability to “bridge the gap” lies in the ability of the science and commercial nano community to put “more emphasis on integration.”

The Nano-Security seminar, Krishnan said, will help attendees connect-the dots, by offering insights and Use Case Scenarios.

As a preview, let’s look at 2 sample national security scenarios where nano could play a role.

Case 1: Avian Flu on the Tarmac?

A commercial jet has just arrived from the Far East and a few passengers are sick on-board. To quickly determine the nature of the infection and if the passengers should be quarantined or let go, Krishnan says a new approach to biosensors is needed.

“Bio-sensors today are unable to provide quick and accurate answers in complex situations, because they had their birth in the 80s and 90s for dealing with the battlefield scenario.” The shift from military to civilian thinking entails many design elements that so far have been largely unexplored by the bio-sensor community, he added. On Krishnan’s list for improvements are:

  • Ease-of-use — Today’s bio-sensors are complicated to operate, “and often require an expert to gather and process the sample and assess the result,” Krishnan said. Nano- and micro-technology could enable significant automation to the system which potentially eliminate the need for ‘experts’ to use the bio-sensor.
  • Compact platforms – Because biological samples are normally processed in sophisticated medical laboratories, the time to get an accurate answer is significantly long. The use of nano-technology components could potentially enable more compact platforms that are highly portable and provide point-of-care analysis that are orders-of-magnitude quicker.
  • Quicker data analysis – The integration of biological analysis, data processing and wireless communication on a single platform could enable the use of the bio-sensor in remote scenarios.
  • Performance – The ability of the device/system to work with extremely small samples and reagents as a result of micro- and nano-technology components would make the platform extremely efficient in terms of ‘consumables’. Also, novel nano-architectures could potentially enable the bio-sensor to make a highly specific detection without necessarily trading-off on the sensitivity of the system.

Case 2. — Sniffing Out Bombs in Public Places

Nano-enabled smart sensors enter an even deeper realm of “intelligent design” when thinking of the problem of detecting threats in a space more open than the closed-quarters of an airplane. “The difference between looking for explosives and detecting pathogens is much more involved than just switching your bio-sensor for a chemical one,” Krishnan told NWN.

Krishnan points to the scenario of looking for explosives in subways or shopping malls:

  • Accommodating the public’s expectation of privacy – Even thought subways and malls are not “private spaces,” Krishnan insists that device designers need to be mindful that the design should be less-obtrusive and data collection should not infringe on privacy rights.
  • Smarter identification and isolation of chemical “signatures” – “Unlike in an airplane, the shopping mall contains a much more complex background in terms of many fumes floating around in the air,” Krishnan said, including food, perfumes and dozens of other things. Filtering and discerning the presence of an explosive in such a complex background is a very challenging problem, he added.
  • Real-time results – While the airliner scenario might work with delays up to 30-60 minutes, in some public scenarios the data analysis window might be limited to 30 seconds to a minute, “or about the time it takes to walk up to and pass through a subway turnstile,” Krishnan said.
  • Integrating data from orthogonal sensors – “There may be a requirement to bring several different (orthogonal) sensing technologies (such as visual, chemical, electromagnetic, etc.) to bear on the problem in order to develop a composite signature for detection that would result in the least amount of false positives. That may require further integration of many sensing modalities on a single platform,” Krishnan said. Again, this is an area where nano-technology may offer some unique and novel solutions.

“If people better understood what the constraints that certain scenarios present, I think the [commercial and research community] would be able to better tailor their solutions and their thinking to meet these demands. I’m looking forward to the symposium to be the first step in that ‘bridging-the-gap’ process,” Krishnan said.

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