Two scientists operate the SPAMS system.
George Farquar and Audrey Martin are two members of the team that has developed the use of the Single-Particle Aerosol Mass Spectrometry (SPAMS) system for detecting the presence of minuscule particles of explosives. They are shown operating the SPAMS system, which can also detect biological and chemical agents.

Airplane passengers and baggage might be screened one day by a machine under development at the Laboratory that can detect explosive, chemical and biological agents all at the same time.

A team of LLNL researchers has conceptually proven that a three-in-one machine, or “universal point detection system,” can be achieved, said George Farquar, a postdoctoral fellow and physical chemist at the Lab’s Glenn T. Seaborg Institute, which is part of the Physical and Life Sciences Directorate.

The team’s latest advance, using its mass spectrometry system to detect the presence of minuscule particles of explosives, is described in the March 1 edition of Analytical Chemistry, a semi-monthly journal published by the American Chemical Society.

“We have found we can potentially detect an incredibly small quantity of material, as small as one dustspeck- sized particle weighing one trillionth of a gram, on an individual’s clothing or baggage,” Farquar said. “This is important because if a person handles explosives they are likely to have some remaining residue.”

Using a system they call Single-Particle Aerosol Mass Spectrometry, or SPAMS, the Livermore scientists already have developed and tested the technology for detecting chemical and biological agents.

The new research expands SPAMS’ capabilities to include several types of explosives that have been used worldwide in improvised explosive devices and other terrorist attacks.

“SPAMS is a sensitive, specific, potential option for airport and baggage screening,” Farquar said. “The ability of the SPAMS technology to determine the identity of a single particle could be a valuable asset when the target analyte is dangerous in small quantities or has no legal reason for being present in an environment.”

The team conducted its explosives tests under laboratory conditions at LLNL last summer. “The tests went well. They show the potential to identify explosives in a field setting,” Farquar said.

Besides Farquar, other LLNL researchers on the explosives detection team included the paper’s lead author, Audrey Martin, an LLNL chemist and Michigan State University Ph.D. student, chemists Eric Gard and David Fergenson, and physicist Matthias Frank. Other members of the overall SPAMS team are chemists Keith Coffee, Henry Benner, Erica McJimpsey and former LLNL employee Herb Tobias; biologist Sue Martin; biophysicist Kristl Adams; engineers Bruce Woods, Tom McCarville and Vincent Riot; and physicists Paul Steele, Mike Bogan and Urs Rohner.

SPAMS team
Among the members of the team working on the Single-Particle Aerosol Mass Spectrometry system are left to right: Gary Armstrong, George Farquar, Tom McCarville, Kristl Adams, Paul Steele, Vincent Riot, Keith Coffee (background), David Fergenson, Eric Gard, Audrey Martin and Sue Martin.

“We work with an incredibly talented group of scientists, engineers and administrative staff that allows this high-quality work to be accomplished,” Farquar said. “As a young scientist, this is what makes the Laboratory an exciting place to work.”

The early history of the three-in-one detection system started at LLNL in 1999 with the development of what is called the Bioaerosol Mass Spectrometry (BAMS) system. This system can detect airborne biological pathogens and sound a warning in less than one minute. In late 2005, Livermore researchers started work to expand the capabilities of BAMS to include chemicals and explosives, setting the stage for the new machine now called SPAMS.

“While this instrument started as a biological detector, we saw that it had the potential to do much more by detecting other threat agents, such as chemicals and explosives,” Farquar said.

The biological detection system underwent field testing for background studies at San Francisco International Airport in late 2005. Farquar describes the biological detection technology “as very solid.”

In late 2005, the biological system underwent testing for several biological “surrogates” at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. A second round of tests – with smaller releases and seven days of autonomous sampling – is planned for later this month.

Initial studies to test the performance of SPAMS with four chemical “simulants” were undertaken in 2006. Future plans for SPAMS include a field test at a large public facility in the United States later this year, upgrading the technology for removing particles from luggage and clothing, and adding the capability of detecting narcotics, Farquar said.

Research funds to add the capabilities of detecting explosives and chemicals have been provided by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and LLNL’s Glenn T. Seaborg Institute.

—Stephen Wampler

Contact: Eric Gard [bio], 925-422-0038,

Audrey Martin adjusts the lens stack of SPAMS. Martin, who worked at LLNL for 15 weeks last summer as a Department of Homeland Security Fellow, is the first DHS intern hired into the Laboratory as a full-time student employee.

DHS Fellow Explores Expansion of Capabilities for Detection

While Audrey Martin is helping develop a technology to protect against terrorist attacks, she’s simultaneously working on her Ph.D. dissertation.

A chemistry student at Michigan State University, Martin is conducting her doctoral research project far from the East Lansing, Mich. school campus, at LLNL.

Last November, the 25-year-old researcher was beginning her thesis work at MSU on the electrochemical monitoring of heavy metals in water supplies when Lab chemist George Farquar called her with an offer.

Farquar asked if Martin, who had worked at LLNL for 15 weeks last summer as a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Fellow, would like to return to the Laboratory as a student employee. “She had done such a great job that we wanted to have her back, so we recruited her to do her Ph.D. in chemistry for MSU here,” Farquar said.

Martin resumed her work at LLNL in February, conducting research on a detection machine that screens for biological, chemical and explosive agents all at the same time. She becomes the first DHS Scholar or Fellow Program intern hired into the Laboratory as a full-time student employee.

“This is fabulous,” said Barry Goldman, who oversees the DHS internship program at LLNL. “This DHS program is intended to expand student awareness of DHS programs and opportunities at the DHS labs. This is an early sign of success.”

As Martin considered the LLNL job offer, provided through the Physics and Advanced Technologies Directorate, it didn’t seem practical at first to change her Ph.D. research project, leave MSU and move out to California. “It’s something of a big change to move across the country. But I thought of where I wanted to be in 10 or 20 years. I concluded the research project and opportunities here would more closely meet my career goals,” she added.

Without the DHS Scholars and Fellows Program, Martin said she would not have had the chance to come to LLNL as an intern or the freedom to pursue a different area of study. “It (the DHS program) definitely provides the chance to see what research is happening in the field and what career options there are for homeland security.”

During Martin’s late May through early September LLNL internship, she conducted research and served as the lead author for a paper that appeared March 1 in the journal Analytical Chemistry. Her paper, written with four LLNL co-authors, describes the expansion of capabilities for the Single-Particle Aerosol Mass Spectrometry (SPAMS) machine to include not only the detection of biological and chemical agents, but explosives.

Martin’s paper doubled as part of her thesis for a master’s degree in forensic science that she received in December through the MSU School of Criminal Justice. She collected data for laboratory tests for explosives and chemicals, analyzed the data and wrote the paper.

“My internship went very well. It was a great group for me to work with because people took the time to explain things and gave me the freedom to do hands-on work and follow my own ideas,”she said. Martin calls the DHS Scholars and Fellow Program something that has been “great” for her education and future scientific career. “Having the opportunity to go to LLNL to explore a new
research area was helpful. This internship gave me access to equipment and facilities, as well as research projects, that wouldn’t have been available at the university level.”

Under the DHS program, students receive the opportunity to explore research and career options in homeland security. Undergraduates, who are called scholars, receive a monthly stipend of $1,000 for nine months per year, while graduate students, who are fellows, are awarded a $2,300 per month stipend year round. Both scholars and fellows have their tuition and fees paid by DHS.

Since the DHS internship program began, LLNL has attracted a burgeoning number of the approximately 100 annual interns, with 15 in 2004, 24 in 2005 and 34 last summer, when Martin served her internship. Another 34 interns are expected to work at LLNL this summer.

“In my view, Audrey’s experience and subsequent hiring is a real success story for the DHS summer program,” said Farquar, who acts as her academic adviser, working with physicist Matthias Frank, who is her supervisor.

Farquar believes it is a “real benefit” for the Laboratory and its research programs to have students. “Not only do they inject new ideas, but it is also important for us as scientists to train the next generation.”

Martin, who was tapped to be a DHS fellow in 2004, worked for 12 weeks during the summer of 2005 at Sandia National Laboratories, California, on a microfluidics project for biological detection. Her time at Sandia was “great” and she learned much, she says.

“When I came over to LLNL to participate in tours and other activities, I saw some research work that was more closely aligned with my career goals,” she said.

Since DHS allows second internships, if requested, Martin asked to come to LLNL last summer – and now has become a full-time student employee.

“This is an interesting time to get into the field of homeland security. I appreciate the chance to perform science that has a public service component and can benefit the safety and security of society.”