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New Device Sniffs Out Black Powder Explosives 133

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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  • 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.

  • 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 []. They contain smokeless powder []. Much like "clips" and "magazines", or "diesel" and "gasoline", these are two different things that are not interchangeable.
  • 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 @05:23PM (#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....

  • 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.

  • hard to make (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 03, 2013 @07:51PM (#43625677)

    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 particles.

    I suspect that the bare mixture would probably work in an improvised device, but so would sugar and perchlorate, or Pyrodex, or SolidOx and fuel or.. you get the idea.. The idiots bombing abortion clinics used to favor fire extinguishers as their pressure vessel. A bit more expensive than a pressure cooker, but a lot less conspicuous. And they favored chlorate/fuel mixtures.

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