The recent thwarted terrorist threat to airlines in London has made us all even more nervous about taking flight. What are scientists doing do help keep dangerous chemicals off planes? And what will we do if terrorists begin to target non-humans?

While it might be very difficult to detect benign chemicals that could make an explosive when mixed together, it is not nearly as difficult to detect traces of potentially dangerous chemicals on the FINGERS of people who recently have been in contact with them, so scientists want to develop an airport sensor that could detect such traces on the fingers of airline passengers.

Researcher Venu Govindaraju says, “An individual never can be absolutely certain that he or she has completely eliminated all traces of such chemicals from their skin.” A biometric sensor could be programmed to detect traces of certain chemicals.

In a tightly enclosed area, such as an airplane, the safety of the air is of utmost importance. In addition to worrying about accidental contamination with viruses, like flu, a new worry is that terrorists might contaminate the air of an airplane with a biological agent, such as anthrax.

Byron Jones says, “Although the science is similar with both of these missions, the application is different,” Jones says. “Our job is to protect the [airplane] environment as best we can?Whether an air incident is deliberate or accidental, the idea is the same… How do you deal with an intentional attack if the attack is invisible?that is, what if somebody is releasing something into the cabin environment that cannot be seen?how can we even detect it? This is one of the things we’re looking at.”

Meanwhile, in Kansas, scientists are worried about terrorist attacks on cattle. Researcher Shawn Hutchinson says, “We’re building a model that can help find a suitable site for burying a large number of livestock. Given the type and size of the animals, we can determine the size of the burial pit, then use [satellites] to automatically search for the best place to dig.” Besides causing a food shortage, an attack that killed a large number of cattle would increase global warming, from the methane released by their carcasses.

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