Andrew Lampard
This Could Be Big

Airport security is an essential, if unglamorous, part of air travel. We expect to arrive at our destination without incident, yet we resent it when we get mired in a long security line for the X-ray machine.

That may all change soon, thanks to Marcos Dantus, a professor of chemistry, and his research team at Michigan State University.

Deep within the bowels of the MSU’s chemistry department, Dantus toils on a laser that could both streamline and embolden airport security. His laser, which he devised with Marshall Bremer, a Ph.D. candidate at MSU, can detect combustible material smaller than a 70 mg grain of sugar -- 1/1000th smaller than a grain of sugar, actually.

“What’s really revolutionary about this laser is that with an average power of a laser pointer we are able to detect explosives with much greater sensitivity than anyone has been able to do,” said Dantus, after showing off the effectiveness of the laser in his lab.

During a trial run, Dantus pinned several items you typically find in a suitcase -- socks, books -- to a rolling trolley. He then laced a few of the items with powdered ammonium nitrate, a combustible agent that can be used in improvised explosive devices.

Dantus then rolled the trolley in front of his laser, which successfully pinpointed the ammonium nitrate-laced items.

Airports currently screen for explosives in myriad ways: They employ dogs, use X-ray machines and randomly swab suspicious packages. Once manufactured, Dantus’ laser could be positioned next to X-ray machines and screen every piece of luggage as it’s X-rayed. Dantus believes this would boost airport security without slowing down the screening ordeal.

“What you need for a public space is a laser that no one sees but that keeps everybody safe and is super sensitive,” Dantus said. “And when it sees a chemical that’s known to be an explosive, it rings an alarm.”

To see the laser in action, watch the video above this article.