Airport signs
Airport signs

A new generation X-ray security scanner – which for the first time will be able to quickly and precisely identify the material of any suspicious objects – is being developed by UK scientists as part of a major new contract with US authorities.

The $4.4million project, led by experts at Nottingham Trent University and Cranfield University, is being funded by the US Department for Homeland Security. It means weapons, explosives, contraband drugs and even illegal trade items such as ivory could be recognised in milliseconds.

It is hoped the technology could provide a major breakthrough in airport security scanning.

The system, being developed in partnership with Halo X-ray Technologies Ltd, will use scattered X-ray signals to identify materials via their unique signatures or chemical ‘fingerprint’, allowing them quickly and easily to be identified. Three dimensional material specific images will also be produced to map the position of objects within luggage.  

The scientists have devised hollow X-ray beams to produce exceptionally intense material signatures. This technological breakthrough will provide the speed required for real-world applications.  

Scanners are currently able to provide an image of an object and give a broad material category, but can’t identify specific substances in this way. This can lead to numerous false alarms and a need for further investigation by hand, which slows down security checks.

The new technology would be able to counter the threat of terrorist activity – which continues to evolve and challenge the technical capability of existing systems – by identifying concealed weapons and explosives, as well as other illegal or suspicious materials.

The two-year project will involve developing new scientific approaches to imaging that it is hoped will lead to the development of a working prototype.  

“This system has the potential to revolutionise airport security scanning – for the first time we can accurately identify materials via their molecular fingerprint,” said Professor Paul Evans, Head of the Imaging Science Group at Nottingham Trent University. “Unlike conventional scanners we measure X-rays that have been diffracted by the objects scanned. This process enables us to identify items at a molecular level to reveal their ‘material DNA’. It is essential today that we have a “tuneable” scanning technology, which can deal with all substances.”

Keith Rogers, Professor of Materials at Cranfield University, said: “This is a very exciting opportunity to translate a powerful analytical tool from the laboratory to the ‘real world’. The potential gains for aviation security and passenger confidence are significant.” 

Simon Godber, Halo CEO, said: “We are delighted to be part of this prestigious programme of work and we are looking forward to commercialising the IP we license from Nottingham Trent University and Cranfield University, which will underpin this next-stage development.”

Notes for editors

This work is supported by the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, Explosives Division, BAA 13-05, Contract Number HSHQDC-15-C-B0036.

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