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A Dark Irony: Boston Is Our National Hub of Explosives Detection

When two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing three people and injuring 176, the Department of Homeland Security’s designated “center of excellence” for developing explosive detection technology was closed for the day. Why? Because the center is co-directed by Northeastern University, which, like just about everything else in Boston, was closed for Patriots' Day.

In a dark irony, the Boston area now reeling from Monday’s blasts is also the country’s leading hub for R&D in the burgeoning field of explosive detection, receiving millions of dollars annually in federal funding to develop ways to prevent terrorist blasts. There is the Homeland Security’s Center of Excellence for Explosives Detection, Mitigation and Response, which also goes by the acronym ALERT and is run by Northeastern in conjunction with University of Rhode Island, under a five-year, $4 million annual appropriation from the federal government. And there are countless Boston-area businesses under government contract to research explosive detection technology. To name just a few examples I came across in federal contracting records: Reveal Imaging Technologies in Bedford, Mass., bought recently by SAIC, has received several million dollars from DHS to research detection of improvised explosive devices (IEDs); Ion Track Instruments in Wilmington has received $2.5 million to fabricate, produce and test explosive trace detection; and L-3 Communications in Woburn got $2 million in 2011 in counter-IED research.

In light of all this investment, the inevitable question from a layman—or taxpayer—is: Why can’t we stop something like the Boston explosions from happening?

It’s a question that the researchers and contractors were hearing on Tuesday. “I walked in the office today and one of our colleagues said, ‘It’s time to detect those kinds of things. How come you can’t do it yet?’” said engineering professor Stephen McKnight, a member of the ALERT team at Northeastern.

Boston’s explosive-detection industry has several roots. It’s based partly in the same strength as the rest of the “Route 128” tech industry in and around the city—the world-class universities that spin off graduates and researchers who go on to start their own business ventures in the area. Then there is the presence of big defense contractors like Raytheon, which draws federal funding and produces smaller spinoffs.

Most surprising is the role played by Boston’s strength in medical research. This is how Northeastern got into the business. In 2000, it created a research center partly funded by the National Science Foundation to develop subsurface imaging techniques that can improve cancer detection. In 2008, when Homeland Security announced that it wanted to create a new “center of excellence” for explosive detection, Northeastern threw its hat in the ring, realizing that its medical research might transfer to the security arena. “A tumor inside the body and a bomb inside the suitcase have a lot of common elements to them,” said Northeastern’s Michael Silevitch, the co-director of ALERT. “It was, ‘how do you probe into cluttered regions and apply those tools to the Homeland Security problem?’”

For Northeastern and many of the businesses working in this arena, the focus has been largely on improving airport screening technology. But there are also efforts to develop detection technology outside the reach of checkpoints, where the emphasis shifts from imaging—say, X-raying a bag to see if there’s a bunch of wires inside—to spectroscopy, trying to pick up anomalies in the radiation intensity of wavelengths given off by different types of materials. As you might expect, this is not easy to do, especially if you're working at a distance from the source of the suspect material and are not sure where to point the detection equipment. But there are plenty of tools under development, such as the “quantum cascade laser” being developed by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, firm Eos Photonics that, as conceived, could be shone on someone’s suit coat to see if it had a trace of explosive on it. Physical Sciences Inc. in Andover is working on its own form of hyperspectral detection, but executive vice president Bill Marinelli was reluctant to elaborate: "I’m not really able to talk about what we are doing here in that regard. Any discussion of the technology would result in a possible disclosure of means to defeat it," he said in an e-mail.

There is a separate branch of research into developing ways to pick up on the vapors given off by explosives—essentially, to mimic what bomb-sniffing dogs can do. This, too, is tremendously challenging—some explosive materials, especially plastic ones, give off very low vapor pressures that are barely indistinguishable from harmless materials (like honey). Boston-area companies and researchers are forging ahead on this front—Triton Systems, in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, is developing ways to “pre-concentrate” the vapors given off by explosives so that they would stand a chance of detection. But if a bomb is well-wrapped and covered in a bag or trash can, vapors will be even harder to pick up.

“Right now, it’s a dream, not a reality,” said Jimmie Oxley, the ALERT co-director at the University of Rhode Island. Add in breezy weather of the sort that Boston had Monday and it gets well-nigh impossible, said one Northeastern official, who requested anonymity. “When you have a big city and thousands of people walking around it’s so hard to find, to know where to look. That’s the fundamental problem, and it will never be solved. Even the Israelis haven’t been able to do it,” said the official. “Here we are, the Center of Excellence for Explosive Detection, and this thing happened here in Boston. It should spur on to do more relevant [research], but you’re limited.”

McKnight and Silevitch are slightly more upbeat. Silevitch said he places great value in the combination of surveillance video, biometric assessment and basic human intuition to determine whether “something looks right or not”—to pick up on the person who, say, walks one way down the sidewalk and then suddenly reverses direction. Crucially, the intuition to pick up on such things is not just in the hands of the person behind the camera—we can only have so many cameras and people monitoring them—but in every alert bystander. “The best deterrent is that the vast majority of people love this country and want to protect and safeguard it—that’s what allows us to function as a free society,” said Silevitch.

A free society—that term kept coming up as I spoke with the Boston researchers, who emphasized that the clearest limit to what these tools could accomplish lay in our reluctance to go to the extremes of having tight screening wherever you have “10,000 people gathered together and maybe one crazy person in the middle of it trying to ruin everyone’s day,” as Carey Rappaport, ALERT’s deputy director, put it to me. “If you’re trying to hide something in an area where everybody has a backpack, you put it in a backpack. You could make something look like a sandwich shape, or a water bottle. It’s sealed so it doesn’t release a lot of chemical signals. How are you going to tell what’s in it? It’s pretty challenging.… There are smart bad guys out there and it’s easy to get lost in the crowd.”

But that doesn’t mean the effort’s in vain, say the researchers. They had quite the opposite reaction to Monday’s horror. Rappaport watched the marathoners go through his town, Wellesley, and then returned to his house. He watched the race for a bit on TV, then turned it off. He didn’t know about the bombing until his daughter called from Chicago to ask if he was OK. “On the one hand, it’s sad and shakes us all,” he said. “On the other hand it gives us encouragement to redouble our efforts, and a new sense of purpose to figure out better ways of coming at this.”

One thing’s for sure: Northeastern and URI are applying to renew their lucrative Homeland Security grant, which expires this year. The competition, they say, will be tough.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis.