News & Events
ALERT Program

DHS S&T hosts “The Nose Knows” Twitter Chat 12/17, 12pm December 17, 2015

Join the “The Nose Knows” Thursday December 17th at noon EST. Tune in and chat about improving canine explosives detection.

The Nose Knows: The Science of Threat Detection Canines

Did you know  dogs’ noses are a million times more sensitive than a human’s nose? Dogs can be trained to detect a wide variety of specific scents, such as drugs, fruits, and explosives and are trained to alert their handlers to the presence of these hazardous items by pawing, barking or, in the case of something dangerous, sitting or lying quietly.

Canines have been used by law enforcement agencies for decades to alert their handlers to threats or objects of interest. The Department of Homeland Security  (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) Canine Program is working with DHS partners, including the Transportation Security Administration, other federal agencies, and state and local first responders to provide independent verification of canine teams’ performance, as well as ways to enhance overall detection capability…

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ADSA13 Presentations Now Available December 17, 2015

We are pleased to announce that the ADSA13 Workshop presentations are now available for download. View all slides, as well as the reports from past ADSA workshops at:

If you have any questions regarding the topics and technologies discussed at the workshop, please contact Carl Crawford at crawford.carl@csuptwo.com.

ALERT researchers work to develop robust Canine Training Aids December 16, 2015

Because of their volatility, explosives are rarely used pure, they are often mixed with other materials such as polymers. Explosives are exposed to polymers for a variety of reason: (1) when they are “plasticized” for shaping; (2) when they are encased for safe handling, (e.g. dog training aids); and (3) when they are collected for forensic evidence or storage. ALERT has focused on finding the best materials for developing devices such as these.

As a result of our study of polymer/HME interactions, ALERT researchers have developed a method of polymer encapsulation that is used to create safe trace explosive sources for canine and instrument training. Polycarbonate microspheres containing only a low percentage of TATP have been demonstrated to last for years, yet produce pure TATP vapor when heated at the designated program rate. This approach provides canine handlers and instrument vendors with safe access to stored hazardous explosives at trace levels for use in detection, calibration, and validation of instruments as well and the training of explosives detecting canines.

ALERT has received enthusiastic support from law enforcement and instrument vendors and are in negotiation for possible licensing with a commercial vendor. In the near term, law enforcement agencies and instrument vendors are able to request these training aids directly from ALERT.

Oxley said “Some of our biggest service clients are law enforcement agencies. When some of the improvised devices came into vogue, they were too sensitive for law enforcement agencies to handle.” Oxley explained that for the Popular Science crew, her team not only conducted a demonstration, but ran a test to determine if the dogs detect pseudo explosives as they do the real explosives.

“It worked and we were really excited, because this was a first-time run during which the dogs were testing both,” said the chemistry professor and co-coordinator of the URI Forensic Science Partnership. “We wanted to make sure they could associate one with the other; that was an extremely important task.

“With K-9s, we are looking at the odor signature, and we have to do that on an explosive-by-explosive basis,” she said.She added that Metropolitan Transit Authority police took advantage of training opportunities at URI long before other groups, but more and more agencies are seeking training, including the federal Transportation Security Administration, which has rotated dozens of agents through the URI campus this summer.

Photo caption: Sgt. Bill Finucane of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police Department in New York works with McCarney, one of the department’s dogs, while testing canine explosive training aids developed by URI’s Jimmie Oxley and her team.

ADSA12 Final Report Now Available October 19, 2015

We are pleased to announce that the ADSA12 Workshop Final Report is now available for download at the following link:

ADSA12 Final Report – Personnel and Divested Items Screening at the Checkpoint

If you have any questions regarding the topics and technologies discussed at the workshop, please contact Carl Crawford at crawford.carl@csuptwo.com.

ALERT Phase 2 Year 2 Annual Report Available Online! September 29, 2015

ALERT is proud to announce that the Phase 2 Year 2 Annual Report is now available for download online. This report captures the progression of the research conducted in our four thrusts:

  • R1 Characterization & Elimination of Illicit Explosives
  • R2 Trace & Vapor Sensors
  • R3 Bulk Sensors & Sensor Systems
  • R4 Video Analytics & Signature Analysis

A full bibliography of publications and presentations conducted under ALERT support follows the individual project reports. Detailed descriptions of the Year 2 activities that took place in our Research and Transition, Education, Strategic Studies, Safety, and Information Protection Programs, as well as the ALERT Phase 2 Overview and Year 2 Highlights, Infrastructure and Evaluation, and Industrial/Practitioner and Government Partnerships can also be accessed in the Annual Report.

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Student Spotlight Interview with Michael Collins September 28, 2015

Congratulations to Michael Collins, who graduated from Northeastern University in August 2014 with his MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering, as he is preparing to complete his participation in the ALERT DHS HS-STEM (Homeland Security Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Career Development Program!

The Career Development Program (CDP) was established in 2011 with a grant to Northeastern University from the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate. In 2015 the program was expanded and renamed, and now awards fellowships to full-time students pursuing BS, MS or PhD degrees related to ALERT’s research. After completing their degree and other program requirements, graduates are required to obtain paid employment within the Homeland Security Enterprise for at least one year.

During his time at Northeastern, Michael worked with Prof. Carey Rappaport on a project focused on the feasibility of using Nuclear Quadrupole Resonance sensing for non-invasive detection of explosives hidden inside the body, in collaboration with Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Of his experience working with Prof. Rappaport, Michael says that, “having a great advisor makes all the difference in a research program. Professor Rappaport’s many insights and patient explanations taught me things that are hard to learn any other way.” As part of the CDP, Michael participated in a 10-week long internship with Los Alamos National Lab, and recalls the opportunity to visit New Mexico to collect data for his thesis as being one of the highlights of the program.

Now, Michael is working at the Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) a NATO organization located in La Spezia, Italy. He began his search for Homeland Security Enterprise positions after graduation in August, 2014, and received his offer to start at CMRE in October, 2014. Michael was initially drawn to the Centre’s research on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) for port security, anti-submarine warfare, and mine detection. So far, he has worked on technology that improves underwater communication, performed acoustic modeling, and has participated in a naval exercise in Norway. Of his current role, Michael says, “I am now in charge of a project that reduces the risk faced by submariners. Like the research that I conducted at ALERT, it’s good to know that my current work makes people safer.”

When asked to reflect on his experience working with Michael, Prof. Rappaport describes him as “an incredibly hard worker: when he sets his sights on a goal, no matter how ambitious or distant, he will attain it through sheer force of will. It’s great to see him succeed in this high responsibility job.”

“The CT Meeting” Announced July 22, 2015

The 4th International Conference on Image Formation in X-Ray Computed Tomography (“The CT Meeting”) will be held July 18 – 22, 2016 in Bamberg, Germany. A call for participants and submissions has been issued by the organizing committee for this event which is “dedicated to basic problems related to X-ray CT.” Abstract Submissions by authors wishing to participate have a  deadline of January 18, 2016. Interested parties should visit http://www.ct-meeting.org to find more information about the event and submission process.

ALERT Collaborators, Carl Crawford and Harry Martz will be coordinating a session on Security CT Applications. Any ALERT researchers who are interested in participating, or have questions about this session should contact Carl Crawford at crawford.carl@csuptwo.com.

Student Spotlight Interview with Mihindra Dunuwille July 1, 2015

Congratulations to Mihindra Dunuwille, a spring 2015 Chemistry Ph.D. graduate at Washington State University (WSU), who has recently started working as a postdoc at the University of Utah! During her time at WSU, Mihindra worked on ALERT research under the guidance of Prof. Choong-Shik Yoo. Her thesis, “Pressure-induced Physical and Chemical Changes of Non-conventional Energetic Materials: Nitrate, Perchlorate and Peroxide Chemistries at High Pressures and High Temperatures,” focused on discerning the chemical properties of non-conventional materials that are widely used in terrorist activities in the hopes of developing techniques to mitigate explosives-related threats.

In order to understand how these chemicals are altered to become explosive, Mihindra performed experiments to determine the effects of physical and thermal conditions (e.g. pressure and temperature) on chemical properties on three types of oxidizers: nitrate, perchlorate and peroxide.

When asked about her experience working on this project, Mihindra describes her enthusiasm for the breadth of information that she was able to acquire just by tuning the physical variables (e.g. pressure) of these chemicals.  Regarding the project’s overall mission, she states, “I’m passionate about how this can be used in real life applications, and that it can change people’s lives for the better.”

Mihindra has been drawn to physical chemistry since high school, and received her B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka. She was originally introduced to Prof. Yoo’s research while at WSU on a prospective visit before accepting their offer to join the Ph.D. program in 2008. Of her experience working with Prof. Yoo, she remembers being encouraged to investigate the scientific basis of experimental observations on her own, instead of being handed the answers, and says, “It made me a better scientist.”

In her new role as a postdoc at the University of Utah, Mihindra has the opportunity to demonstrate her skills and experience from her previous project, while also getting the chance to explore new scientific techniques. Her current project, “Superconductivity of Lithium Rich Compounds,” will give her the chance to study the effects of high pressures and low temperatures on chemical properties, and will offer her the opportunity to get more experience with x-ray diffraction techniques. When asked about her career goals, she undoubtedly wants to continue doing research on explosives where she would like to have a positive impact on society, and would one day like to work for a national lab.

Mihindra’s enthusiasm for her work becomes quickly apparent when speaking with her, and is further reinforced by Prof. Yoo, who reflects, “She was smart, careful, responsible, and highly motivated both in her research and academic leadership roles… in short, she was an excellent graduate student with a high level of devotion and morale.”

Naval Academy Midshipmen Participate in ALERT Research July 1, 2015

Annapolis Naval Academy Midshipmen, Andrew Kelly and Gabe Lackey, are spending a month this summer doing ALERT research at the University of Rhode Island (URI), in Kingston, RI. Andrew and Gabe are Systems Engineering majors and have elected to use this time to work with the URI Energetic Materials Research Group. Their work includes hands-on experience with a myriad of aspects of explosives research at both the laboratory scale and in the field. Projects include using various instruments for physical characterization of both military explosives and homemade/improvised energetic materials.

Midshipman Lackey (pictured, middle) has said of his experiences,

“It has been very interesting to see the ‘behind the scenes’ process that takes an idea and eventually lets it reach the front lines, helping sailors, marines, and all military men and women.”

Midshipman Kelly (pictured, far right) says of his experiences working with ALERT scientists at URI,

“Working alongside the graduate students under Dr. Oxley has been informative in linking the numerous research areas to future military application, as well as what is currently being used.”

ALERT Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Begins July 1, 2015

This summer, ALERT is hosting 5 undergraduate students who are participating in the 10-week REU program. At Northeastern University, two students are working with Prof. Carey Rappaport, one student is working with Prof. Jose Martinez, and one student is working with John Beaty. ALERT is also hosting a student at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez who is doing research with Prof. Samuel Hernandez.

The ALERT REU program is partnering with other REU programs in the College of Engineering to build a cohort of students who jointly attend professional development meetings and program activities. At the end of the summer each student will give a final presentation on their research project.