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Every Bug, Every Gas, Right Now: Air Force Wants Instant WMD Detector

• Lena Groeger via

Spurred by the anthrax hysteria of 2001, the U.S. government has thrown billions of dollars into developing new equipment and technologies to detect chemical and biological warfare agents. Now the Air Force has a plan that, if it actually works, would render all those billions obsolete.

A new solicitation from the service describes the need for “nanoparticle-based sensors that can be deployed in biological environments for the real-time detection of agents of interest.” In other words, the Air Force wants an instant, in vivo detector for every single toxic chemical and nasty germ on the face of the earth — from smallpox to nerve agents.

The chemical detection part is only slightly less wild than the rest of the proposal. Currently, the military has a variety of ways to detect and identify chemical agents, from stationary detectors that monitor the air for toxic clouds at a distance, or handheld devices that travel with a soldier and give off a warning in the event of a chemical exposure.

But detecting biological agents is another feat entirely — living organisms are orders of magnitude more complex, constantly changing, and take much longer to identify. Typical lab tests can take hours (if not days) to analyze, process, and confirm a specific biological agent, and that’s only if the lab knows exactly what antigen it’s looking for.

This sensor, therefore, seems beyond any reasonable stretch of the imagination. It would pack all existing chemical-agent-detecting capabilities into a tiny cell. It would solve the hugely daunting problem of identifying not just one, but hundreds of dangerous biological organisms (many of which look indistinguishable from harmless germs). And most significantly, it would do this all in real time.

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