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New Device Sniffs Out Black Powder Explosives 133

Posted by Soulskill
from the fighting-7th-century-technology dept.
sciencehabit writes "The Boston marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reportedly purchased several pounds of black powder explosive before the bombing. Used in fireworks and bullets, the explosive substance is both deadly and widely available. It's also very hard to detect. Now, researchers have modified one bomb-sniffing device to accurately spot very small amounts of black powder, an advance that could make us safer from future attacks. What has prevented detection of black powder by IMS in the past, however, is that sulfur and oxygen -- which composes 20% of air—hit the detector at almost the same time. A strong oxygen signal can thus mask a small amount of sulfur, like what a bombmaker's dirty fingers might leave on a luggage strap. A group led by chemist Haiyang Li at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics in China modified an IMS to eliminate the oxygen signal. 'We have tested the sensitivity of TR-IMS, and its limit of detection of black powder can reach as low as 0.05 nanograms,' Li says."
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New Device Sniffs Out Black Powder Explosives

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  • ...detects the presence of musketeers!

    • Re:or... (Score:5, Informative)

      by icebike (68054) on Friday May 03, 2013 @04:49PM (#43624063)

      And tiny firecrackers, and the smoke there-of.
      Legal uses of black powder would easily swamp and overwhelm this detector. So in order to prevent false positives,
      expect a major crackdown on black powder. Vaseline too.

      Further, its never been hard to train dogs to sniff out black powder, so having a machine that does this is probably not much cheaper.

      • Legal uses of radiation therapy arent stopping them from harassing innocent citizens with over zealous radiation detection.
    • by JTsyo (1338447)
      How much sulfur is in a fart?
  • From time-travelling Anarchists, tossing bombs from the 1860's!

    • Time-traveling Anarchists, or, say, people who drop pressure-cooker bombs made from fireworks at marathon finish lines?
      • Oh, wait, I forgot, we are still in the mode of "stop the specific mode of this each particular attach".

        Blow up building with fertilizer bomb-> must track all sales of fertilizer
        Shoe bomber -> must scan all shoes
        Underwear bomber -> must scan through underwear
        Bomb with black powder -> must start scanning everywhere for black powder
        [originally, I forgot the 'd's, and it read "Bomb with black power -> must start scanning everywhere for black power"] doh
        Bribe TSA agents to let drugs through ->

    • ...and people returning from fireworks displays or setting off firecrackers, returning from hunting trips, anyone from Kentucky...

    • by turp182 (1020263)

      Remember, remember, the 5th of November. Hang on a second, that's not right, it's Cinco de Mayo!!!

  • by sycodon (149926)

    They purchased Fireworks that contained black powder.

    But that won't stop the morons in Congress from trying to make black powder something that requires a background check.

    And folks like these two chuck-heads will continue to buy fireworks and be completely unaffected by the background checks.

    • Black Powder? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Molochi (555357) on Friday May 03, 2013 @06:41PM (#43625131)

      Just a side note because it's making me nerdrage :) TFA asserts "Used in fireworks and bullets, the explosive substance is both deadly and widely available." Assuming that they are actually talking about "black powder" I think this was an included invention by the writer.

      Manufactured ammunition (with a very few niche and very expensive exceptions) hasn't used "black powder" for its loads for over 100 years. Modern ammo uses "smokeless" powders with a variety of chemical compositions based around nitroglycerin and 1or 2 other nitro based chemicals. These should be easily detectable with existing sniffers that are looking for nitrates. So if a day on the range was going to get me hauled in at the TSA line, well were already past that.

      Pyrodex and other Black Powder substitutes are more commonly used by muzzleloader hunters and Pyrodex is "smokeless powder" based and formulated for the lower power of black powder explosions. I should also be easily detectable.

      Garden variety "buy it a supermarket go-bang fireworks" use perchlorate based fuel as far as I know. I don't know how detectable it is or how chemically similar it is to black powder off the top of my head. But I'd guess it's not and would prefer it to be detectable.

      On the other hand I CAN buy black powder by the 16oz can with cash. I think it would be good thing if the chemsniffers could detect it.

      • Bullets have never been made of black powder. The bullet is the metal tip (or ball whne they actually used black powder)

    • by walshy007 (906710)

      Already the case where I live in Australia. There is a severe aversion to anything that could be remotely dangerous here. You can't even buy "shopgoods fireworks" (under 40 grams) without public liability insurance, having done several courses and acquiring multiple different licenses.

      First up you have your fireworks contractor license, $330 a year. Want the ability to import fireworks (even those tiny under 40 gram ones) $300 a year. Want to be able to store fireworks? $35 per year under 100kg, $300 for ov

    • by SeaFox (739806)

      They purchased Fireworks that contained black powder.

      But that won't stop the morons in Congress from trying to make black powder something that requires a background check.

      And folks like these two chuck-heads will continue to buy fireworks and be completely unaffected by the background checks.

      Coming soon! Background checks to buy fireworks.
      That would be a sadly ironic turn of events. People like to toss out the "terrorists have won" line, but here Security Theater will literally keep us from celebrating our freedom.

    • by Teancum (67324)

      Black powder isn't even all that hard to manufacture. I suppose Congress could outlaw anybody with an outhouse on "national security reasons", as that might be considered "dangerous" as a source of potential Nitrates. Similarly anybody who decides to stockpile wood as that can be turned into charcoal could be considered dangerous as well.

      I've made my own black powder in the past simply to see if it could be made at all, and I used to buy Salt Peter in bulk quantities from my neighborhood pharmacist (somet

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 03, 2013 @04:48PM (#43624041)

    All I keep hearing about is knee jerk reactions to a sad but relatively trivial event in Boston.

    • by femtobyte (710429)

      What could a self-regulating American --- Texan, even! --- business possibly do worse than turrists? Surely, their own self-interests would prevent them from doing anything truly stupid and dangerous; that's why we don't need government regulators breathing down our necks. Are you some sort of commie, trying to spread lies that the Free Market won't keep us perfectly safe from harm?

    • All I keep hearing about is knee jerk reactions to a sad but relatively trivial event in Boston.

      That has become the standard government reaction to anything that happens... ban it. A fan, a five pound bag of flour and a match can blow a house up. As soon as some idiot does it you will need a Federal License to buy a pound of flour.

  • by j-stroy (640921) on Friday May 03, 2013 @04:50PM (#43624067)
    There is an old design for a flint powered detector similar to a more modern piezo-electric black powder detector.

    Lets not forget the BATF detector which supplies its own sample and has a 100% detection rate.
  • by Culture20 (968837) on Friday May 03, 2013 @04:51PM (#43624073)
    Get ready for the massive amounts of false positives. You went to the firing range last Tuesday? Terrorist Scum!
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      If it keeps ONE CHILD SAFE, we have to throw out all your civil liberties.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Get ready for the massive amounts of false positives. You went to the firing range last Tuesday? Terrorist Scum!

      It detects sulphur. Anyone who has used matches recently will be tagged as well.

    • by Molochi (555357)

      Why are you using black powder? It's messy and corrosive in your 150 year old gun. Use pyrodex or a modern gun that never used black powder instead and they'll only pull you aside if their chem sniffer can detect nitrates. Oh Wait...

  • Wow! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bogidu (300637) on Friday May 03, 2013 @04:52PM (#43624093)

    Bullets are made out of black powder? All the ones I've used have been made out of lead or copper. How do those black powder bullets hold together?

    Reporters, please learn the difference between:

    Ammunition and bullets
    Magazines and clips
    Automatic vs Semi-Automatic

    etc, when talking about firearms.

    • More niggling (Score:5, Informative)

      by NoImNotNineVolt (832851) on Friday May 03, 2013 @05:04PM (#43624213) Homepage
      I'd hate to come across as pedantic, but...

      An ammunition cartridge is composed primarily of:
      Bullet: The projectile that is ejected from the muzzle of the firearm at high speed.
      Propellant: The chemical explosive that is burned to propel the bullet.
      Primer: The component that chemically generates heat when struck with sufficient force, igniting the propellant.
      Casing: Just what it sounds like, the part that holds everything together.

      Now, to keep this from being entirely off-topic...
      Modern ammunition cartridges do not contain black powder [wikipedia.org]. They contain smokeless powder [wikipedia.org]. Much like "clips" and "magazines", or "diesel" and "gasoline", these are two different things that are not interchangeable.
      • Since we're being pedantic, you could actually interchange black and smokeless powder in some modern cartridges for some firearms - e.g. .38 Special out of a revolver.

      • Re:More niggling (Score:5, Interesting)

        by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Friday May 03, 2013 @05:30PM (#43624427)

        Modern ammunition cartridges do not contain black powder [wikipedia.org]. They contain smokeless powder [wikipedia.org]. Much like "clips" and "magazines", or "diesel" and "gasoline", these are two different things that are not interchangeable.

        A slight quibble:

        blackpowder can be loaded into any casing and will work just fine (for certain values of fine - be VERY careful about loading). Note that the .45-70 cartridge was originally blackpowder, is now smokeless powder, but is the same size cartridge it always was, so can be loaded quite safely with 70 grains of black powder instead of whatever amount of smokeless it comes out of the box with.

        Note that the above quibble really only matters to the few of us who own replicas of the 1873 Springfield .45-70 cavalry carbine (7th Cavalry used them at Little Big Horn, for reference) and feel the incredible urge to foul the barrels of our carbines for a more "realistic feel"....

  • by BetterSense (1398915) on Friday May 03, 2013 @04:52PM (#43624095)
    Black powder is perfectly legal.

    Why should black powder residue constitute probable cause of anything, if possession and use of black powder is actually legal?

    In theory, I could go shooting my historical weapons that use black powder, which is also perfectly legal, or go to a war-between-the-states reenactment, and then walk through downtown Boston. Nevermind, that would be outside the ordinary, prescripted "safe area" of human activity that "most normal people" do, and therefore suspicious and therefore probable cause. Got it.
    • by meerling (1487879)
      You're better off using modern replacements for actual black powder, since the corrosive effects of that old sulfer charcoal saltpeter stuff is pretty nasty over time.
      • by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Friday May 03, 2013 @05:23PM (#43624387)

        You're better off using modern replacements for actual black powder, since the corrosive effects of that old sulfer charcoal saltpeter stuff is pretty nasty over time.

        Which is why cleaning your blackpowder firearms THOROUGHLY immediately after use is mandatory.

        My Civil War era revolvers get disassembled and tossed into boiling water soon as I get home. For a start....

      • by Molochi (555357)

        Mind you those replacements use a nitro base. So you're still screwed IF this is going to happen. But it is better for your gun.

        • by iggymanz (596061)

          eh, you can't use modern smokeless in a black powder weapon. the replacements for black powder contain black powder plus other ingredients.

      • by iggymanz (596061)

        the modern replacements to be used in black powder weapons also contain black powder and are corrosive and caustic too. Pyrodex for example has black powder plus graphite and some other interesting things; it is less sensitive and safe than black powder but still dangerous and having many the bad characteristics. you still have to wash your gun afterwards (yes, hot soapy near-boiling water).

    • Black powder is perfectly legal. Why should black powder residue constitute probable cause of anything, if possession and use of black powder is actually legal?

      Depends on the quantity, probably. The last time I checked, black powder was rated as the highest-risk explosive in our legislature because of its sensitivity to sparks and static electricity. The residue could at least result in them asking you where you got it from, in what quantity, and if you're qualified and licensed to handle it.

  • ...Wash your hands very, very thoroughly.

    And whatever you do DON"T FART while going through security.

  • Less than worthless (Score:5, Informative)

    by gweihir (88907) on Friday May 03, 2013 @05:09PM (#43624249)

    Black powder can be found almost everywhere, even in societies that do not have a gun-fetish. Every little firecracker has it in it. These detectors would cause so many false positives as to be not only absolutely worthless, they would have negative value as they waste massive amounts of resources.

    But I get it, the US administration, and under its tutoring the US population, have lost all rationality when it comes to "terrorism" a long time ago. The next bombing (and it will happen) will just cause as much useless actionism and more steps towards a police-state as this one did. And if it takes too long for the next bombing to happen, the FBI will arrange a fake one, as they have done several times before.

    • by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Friday May 03, 2013 @05:47PM (#43624607)

      Black powder can be found almost everywhere, even in societies that do not have a gun-fetish.

      What does a "gun-fetish" have to do with it?

      Black powder isn't used in any commercial cartridges that I know of, and the overwhelming majority of gun owners don't own or use black powder for anything but their Fourth of July fireworks.

      It's mostly used by reenactors of various sorts, with muzzle-loading muskets/rifles/pistols/revolvers, and bought by the pound (I've got the best part of a pound in my ammo safe).

      Though, frankly, making it is not so difficult as all that.....

      • hard to make (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Actually, making "good" black powder isn't easy. Any idiot can mix sulfur, sodium nitrate and charcoal and make a sort of rapidly burning mixture. But it wouldn't be real black powder. You need to mix them and grind them together (a nontrivial process if you don't want to have it ignite), then you mix it with the right amount of water, make a paste, let it dry into a solid cake, then break the cake up in a way that makes nice sharp edged particles, as opposed to just grinding it into spherical dust particl

    • Some states already ban firecrackers to protect the children. It's just common sense, and the rest of country will have to advance.
    • "the FBI will arrange a fake one, as they have done several times before."

      When? Where? Cite?

  • false positives? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by houghi (78078) on Friday May 03, 2013 @05:18PM (#43624347)

    This would be great to create false positives. Just sprinkle some on random people to create as many false positives as possible.
    Then when they turn the system off, do some small attack and then when they turn it back on, start with the false positives again.

    remember: terrorism isn't about killing people, it is about spreading terror. The actual limiting of peoples freedom will be done in congress. Installing this means the terrorists have won.

    • Yep, just stand by the elevator in the parking garage at the airport and unravel a few firecrackers and then walk over to the security line and fire up the video camera for some laughs.

  • by meerling (1487879) on Friday May 03, 2013 @05:24PM (#43624395)
    Black powder is an ancient explosive, not to mention easy and cheap to make. We even did it in one of my science classes.
    (Sure, that was back in the 80s when chemistry in a science class meant you actually mixed and tested various chemicals instead of just watching a video on the structure of polymers as it pertains to the plastics industry, but still.)
    Also, gunpowder is not that powerful, and there are plenty of others with more bang that are nearly as easy to make.

    Bet those sensors go absolutely berserk during July. :p

    Of course, if someone wanted to cause trouble, just toss a handful of power into the wind blowing on a crowd anywhere they have those sensors.
    Any security system that can be so easily swamped with false positives (the false positive is not that the gunpowder was detected, but rather that they were a threat, had anything to do with it, or had any knowledge regarding it at all.
    And that's assuming it's only going off on gunpowder, because if it goes off on sulfur, even an egg salad sandwich or certain types of antibiotics could cause a lockdown. How many of those will occur before someone realizes that trying to detect a common element is not security.
    • How many of those will occur before someone realizes that trying to detect a common element is not security.

      Rationality hasn't slowed much less stopped the long lines, groupings, delays that people go through at airports, train stations, concerts, sporting events, etc. Expect the same kind of lines and checks at "public" events in the future. People collecting in any form is bad for the powers that be. They might start talking, or heaven forbid, exchanging ideas. For us "oldsters" who remember society in the sixties, compared to where we are now in terms of repression, it's just one more small step to get the

  • So what the hell do the puffer scanners at the airport scan for??? Nukes?

  • Just hang on a minute.

    "Smokeless powder" (nitrocellulose) pretty much replaced gunpowder (sulfer, charcoal, and potassium nitrate) in firearms over an hundred years ago, except for historical reproductions. And even those replicas of old firearms largely use alternative propellants that are engineered to have the same bang per volume of gunpowder (as the propellant is measured by volume during reloading). The "gunpowder" in fireworks is not the same propellant used in modern firearms. Equating the two could lead to some confusion. This distinction will be entirely lost on the congressional floor, but as nerds, we should be aware of it.

  • by slew (2918) on Friday May 03, 2013 @05:55PM (#43624703)

    What this appears to be talking about is how at the airport they now swab your carry-on luggage and put it in a machine. I don't think these boston folks would have been though any "swabing" checkpoint so the existance of a device that did this probably would not have made anyone "safer" in this case (or any similar non-airport/govt-building checkpoint situation).

    For those curious, the idea behind an IMS (ion mobility spectrometer), is that you ionize your sample (well sort of, you have water or other liquid vapor with ions dissolved in it, not just pure ions in air or in a vaccum) and waft them into a drift tube and use fact that these ionized vapors have slightly different masses so they have different mobility under an electric field. The "spectra" of the mobility under this electric field helps to identify the original chemicals in the swab.

    The specific problem they are trying to solve with black powder is that the ions formed by Sulphur (atomic mass 32) and Oxygen (atomic mass 16) are very difficult to disambiguate for a clean detection signal (since O2n- and S1n- have about the same mass).

    The common method of disamgibuating is to add solvents or chemical reagents before ionization. AFAIK, in the case of Oxygen interference, a common way to change the ionic signature is to add dichlorolmethane CH2CL2 and the resulting reaction usually exchanges O2- ions for CL- ions (which is enough different than sulphur ion to make it easy to detect), but unfortuantly, dichloromethane also has a side effect of inhibiting the formation of various Sulphur ion allotropes (i.e., different number of sulphur atoms in the ion). So these folks apparently came up with a technique where you ionize first (avoiding the problem with CH2CL2 and sulphur ion formation) and then pass all the ions through a CH2CL2 "titration region" in the drift tube (effectively replacing many of O2- ions that mask the sulphur ion signature with Cl- ions).

    Of course the devil is in the details which I haven't read about yet...

    • the idea behind an IMS (ion mobility spectrometer), is that you ionize

      Thank you. That's a hell of lot more interesting and informative than the bazillionth gun pedant pointing out the difference between a clip and a magazine.

  • I hear there's quite a market for them.

    • by bfandreas (603438)
      Maybe they will even sell versions that detect ivory.
      But black powder was popular in Guy Fawke's days. Nobody has caused significant damage with minor quantities of black powder for the past 50 years. Nevertheless politicos will go into headless chicken mode an money bins will be built.
  • by msauve (701917)
    Don't light any matches or eat any eggs before flying.
  • by SuperBanana (662181) on Friday May 03, 2013 @07:17PM (#43625399)
    There were bomb-sniffing dogs working the marathon - they were pulled once the elite runners had gone through and the dignitaries had left.
  • tremble in fear, knowing that their single shot may never be fired. Cap-N-ball conspiracists will be doomed to failure. Ahhh, technology, the Prozac of the masses.

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