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Reported by: Patrice Pages
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Nov. 16, 2001

Brookhaven Lab Explores Anti-Terrorism Initiatives

UPTON, NY – In the wake of the devastating September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory has established an anti-terrorism working group to identify innovative approaches that may help to preserve the safety and enhance the long-term security of the United States and its people.

The 20-member Brookhaven working group builds on an urban anti-terrorism technical support organization established at Brookhaven in March 2001. As a national laboratory, Brookhaven has developed advanced capabilities and expertise that puts it in a unique position to contribute to anti-terrorism efforts in the U.S. and abroad. The working group, headed by Ralph James, Associate Laboratory Director for Energy, Environment, and National Security, aims to consolidate these unique capabilities and develop cutting-edge, science-based technologies that could help the nation predict, detect, preempt, and respond to terrorism.

“The destructive and vicious attacks of September 11 created an enormous challenge to build an improved security framework for our nation,” said James. “As vanguards for the advancement of technological solutions, scientists at Brookhaven and elsewhere are now mobilizing to answer that challenge.”

The working group represents most of the scientific disciplines within the Laboratory. Many of the group’s ideas emphasize improved means to prevent and protect against attacks and to provide emergency response if prevention and protection should fail. Approaches and technologies currently being explored include:

  • Sensors for the early detection of nuclear, chemical, and biological agents and explosives, including the ability to detect trace quantities of these materials. Radiation detectors could be used to check baggage at airports and other transportation centers.
  • A one-of-a-kind chemical sensor to locate and identify chemical spills or ground contamination from a safe distance. The system uses laser beam scattering patterns to identify substances by their distinct chemical “fingerprints.” Another technique under development uses microwaves to image unknown materials. (See a streaming video which discusses this device, RealPlayer required.)

  • Methods to detoxify nerve gas agents using an enzyme that can degrade such compounds. This work could lead to topical lotions that protect the skin.
  • Structural studies of viruses to determine how these organisms attack the human body. This work may help scientists design vaccines and antidotes against biological weapons and aid in identifying these agents. Similar structural studies of chemical agents may also help design countermeasures for chemical weapons.
  • A jackhammer-like device that could be used to break up concrete and other debris in enclosed spaces. The team that developed the prototype won several awards and is now working to commercialize the concept.
  • A magnetic imaging tool designed to locate and map iron structures hidden in debris to aid in search-and-rescue missions. The tool could be further developed to map other materials within a debris field.
  • Materials studies that could lead to “smart” buildings that are more resistant to terrorist acts involving explosives and chemical and biological agents.
  • An improved way to assess security risks at office buildings, energy supply/distribution systems, airports, and other infrastructure elements, incorporating weighted analysis of threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences.
  • Techniques to model and track aerosols and chemicals as they move through air, and identify and assess sources and trajectories of these atmospheric contaminants. 
  • Training and role-playing exercises to help first responders prepare for possible terrorist attacks, including simulations of a biological weapons attack on a city.

“Our scientists are determined to apply their skills to reduce the likelihood that the pain we experienced on September 11 is ever felt again,” said James. “The terrorist attacks altered the way many scientists conduct business, and it is unlikely we’ll be back to ‘business as usual’ anytime soon.”

To ensure that Brookhaven’s efforts are in step with the needs of local, state, and federal authorities, the working group is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the New York City Office of Emergency Management, and the New York State Battery Park City Authority.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies. Brookhaven also builds and operates major facilities available to university, industrial, and government scientists. The Laboratory is managed by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited liability company founded by Stony Brook University and Battelle, a nonprofit applied science and technology organization.