In the lab, cooking up fake bombs & bomb detectors

February 3, 2010


At the Transportation Security Laboratory, chemists, physicists and engineers dream up ways a weapon might be slipped onto a plane, then figure out how to stop it. It’s part science, part James Bond.

Reporting from Atlantic City, N.J. – Eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the front line in America’s war on terrorism runs through a little-known federal laboratory where engineer Nelson Carey holds what appears to be a bratwurst in a bun.

“This is a Semtex sausage,” said Carey, as he pinched the pink plastic explosive long favored by terrorist groups.

On his table lies a green Teletubby doll stuffed with C-4 military explosives, a leather sandal with a high-explosive shoe insert, an Entenmann’s cake covered in an explosive compound that looks like white frosting, and other deadly devices Carey and his colleagues have built. None have detonators, so they are safe.

“We let our imaginations go wild,” Carey said. “The types of improvised explosive devices are endless.”

So are possible solutions, at least in theory. That’s where the Transportation Security Laboratory comes in. Scientists here dream up ways an enemy might slip a weapon or a bomb onto a plane, and then try to build defenses to detect or counter the danger.

The work is part cutting-edge science, part Maxwell Smart.

Staffers have experimented by exploding more than 200 bombs on junked jetliners. They also have filled a warehouse with nearly 10,000 lost or abandoned suitcases and other packed luggage.

“We build bombs in them” and run them through airport-style screening machines, said Susan Hallowell, the lab director. If a bomb escapes detection, technicians try to figure out why and how to catch it next time. “We call it the art of bagology.”

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