College of LAS « Illinois

Chemical Sciences

Easy Screening

Chemists invent simple sensor for explosives.


U of I chemists have developed a simple sensor for detecting the explosive used in shoe bombs. It could lead to inexpensive, easy-to-use devices for luggage and passenger screening at airports and elsewhere.

Triacetone triperoxide (TATP) is a high-powered explosive that is easy to prepare yet difficult to detect—it doesn’t fluoresce, absorb ultraviolet light, or readily ionize. Nor are there the available screening methods feasible for on-the-ground use in airports. They require large, expensive equipment, extensive sample preparation, or relatively high concentrations of TATP in solid or liquid form.

The new system developed by Kenneth Suslick, the Schmidt Professor of Chemistry at the U of I, and postdoctoral researcher Hengwei Lin uses a colorimetric sensor array that can quantitatively detect even very low levels of TATP vapor—down to a mere 2 parts per billion.

“The handheld device makes the whole process portable, sensitive, fast, and inexpensive,” Suslick says. The handheld sensor now is being commercialized by iSense, a senor manufacturer based in Palo Alto, Calif.

Winter 2011