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Eddies and echoes to thwart smugglers

July 29, 1998 Share This!

RICHLAND, Wash. – Smugglers, beware. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers have developed two portable detection systems that can detect quickly and accurately everything from the contents of a soda pop can to strategic metals used to make nuclear weapons.

The Material Identification System and the Ultrasonic Pulse Echo instrument, currently in use by the U.S. Customs Service and the Department of Energy's Hanford Site, are being provided to customs inspectors in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union republics.

"With both systems, we have taken basic measurement technologies--eddy current and ultrasound--and provided new, sophisticated applications that are extremely user-friendly," said Pacific Northwest senior research scientist Richard Pappas.

Although the devices have traveled separate development paths, they now are viewed as companion technologies and an effective one-two punch for border security.

Material Identification System

Development of the Material Identification System began in 1993. "A U.S. Customs official visiting Pacific Northwest was impressed by a demonstration of an eddy current device that was able to tell the difference between nickels, dimes and other coins," Pappas explained. "Because most metals, including those used for strategic purposes, are similar in appearance, it is hard, if not impossible, for border inspectors to visually determine whether a metal is what it's purported to be.

"U.S. Customs felt a device that could discriminate between metals would be a useful tool for their inspectors," he added.

With initial funding from DOE, Pappas and Pacific Northwest engineer Jim Skorpik completed the first Material Identification System several months later.

The system is composed of a laptop computer with a plug-in instrument card that operates a hand-held probe. As the probe is passed over a piece of metal, the instrument card measures the flow of electrical currents through the metal. Ease of flow--or, alternately, resistance--varies from one metal to another. Information gathered through this process is used by the computer for comparison and reconciliation against an extensive U.S. Customs data base. The computer lets the user know whether the metal is, in fact, what is declared or purported to be, and also indicates the most likely identity of the metal. The inspector may search the data base for additional information including the classification of the metal and regulations that apply.

In addition to detecting strategic metals, which could be used to make nuclear weapons, the Material Identification System helps border inspectors determine if a shipment of metals has been labeled fraudulently to avoid a higher duty fee.

But applications are not limited to customs-related work. The system is used at the Hanford Site to inspect excessed equipment before it is sold as surplus to the public. This is a precaution to help identify items that may impose special export controls requirements on the person or organization purchasing them.

Ultrasonic Pulse Echo

The Ultrasonic Pulse Echo instrument, based on ultrasound technology, originally was developed by Pacific Northwest staff to inspect chemical weapon stockpiles in Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. A hand-held device roughly the size and shape of a large ping-pong paddle, the instrument houses a computer, is linked to a data library and sensor head, and can determine the contents of a sealed container.

The sensor, which transmits ultrasonic pulses and detects any return echoes, is positioned on the outside wall of the container. As sound waves are transmitted, the return echoes bouncing off the other side of the container are analyzed in terms of time-of-flight and amplitude decay to identify the characteristics of the contents and compare those features against information in the data library.

In addition to characterization, the Ultrasonic Pulse Echo can measure how full a container is, and determine whether there are any cavities or hidden packages within the container that might hold drugs or other smuggled goods.

"This instrument and the Material Identification System are reliable and can provide information in a matter of seconds, but they should not be viewed as end-alls," Pappas emphasized. "Border inspectors simply don't have time to conduct a search of the contents of every vehicle passing through a border point. But if experience and intuition tell them a particular shipment warrants suspicion, they then could turn to these systems."

The U.S. On-Site Inspection Agency recently ordered 10 sets of the equipment for use at borders in Russia, other new republics and Eastern Europe. Smuggling is on the upswing in the region while efforts to halt the transport of illicit goods have been hindered by a lack of funding, adequately trained personnel and technology.

"There is an immediate need for technologies to assist international border control and enforcement," said Bill Cliff, program manager for international border security in Pacific Northwest's national security directorate. "The development and deployment of advanced interdiction equipment is an important contribution to the United States' efforts to strengthen international border controls."

Cliff noted that the U.S. Customs Service and Pacific Northwest will use the Material Identification System and the Ultrasonic Pulse Echo instrument when training foreign border enforcement officials at the Hazardous Materials Management and Emergency Response (HAMMER) training facility at Hanford, beginning this fall.

Also, the State Department and other agencies have expressed interest in providing the systems to Cypress, Malta and other countries where the units have been requested.

Tags: National Security

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of more than $1 billion. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information on PNNL, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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