APS News

APS Counter-Terrorism Task Force Meets on September 11

While the nation soberly observed a day of remembrance for last year's September 11 terrorist attacks, the APS Counter-Terrorism Task Force marked the occasion with a meeting at APS headquarters in College Park. Chaired by Bob Guenther of Duke University, the task force was given a very general charge, which includes surveying current activities of the physics community in the area of counter-terrorism, helping identify physics problems, and encouraging physicists to find solutions. Task force members held their first meeting May 3, 2002. A final report is expected to be presented to the APS Council later this month.

"The objective is to identify areas where the physics community can step forward to assist the government in its response to the attack of September 11," said Guenther. "We would like to not only identify technological response to current threats but also how we might reduce future exposure through the development of new technologies.

" The bulk of the September 11 meeting was devoted to a series of technology review presentations, detailing the various areas where physics and physicists might contribute to national efforts to counter- terrorism.

The meeting kicked off with a discussion of biomedical issues, focusing on such bioterrorist threats as anthrax. Biodetection of these agents must be extremely rapid, particularly since early treatment of exposure to anthrax is often successful, whereas later treatment usually fails to save the patient. Current biodetection methods include molecular biology, immunology, mass spectrometry and spectroscopy. Other speakers focused on detection of common chemical weapons, as well as the issue of nuclear and radiological weapons.

In airport security, non-destructive detection methods are preferred, including the use of various x-ray technologies. Others under development include elastic neutron scattering, thermal neutron activation, nuclear resonance absorption, and vapor/particle detection devices. Future applications of such technologies include detection and characterization of underground structures, clandestine sensing of terrorist activities, and support of anti-terrorist forces with portable sensors and surveillance-enhancing equipment. Detection of explosives concealed in baggage or packages, and the problem of undetonated land mines still littering many war-torn countries (see APS NEWS, July 2002, p. 8), are also areas of major concern.

One of the more promising areas for physics to contribute to anti-terror efforts is the burgeoning field of nanotechnology. Specifically useful research areas include the development of miniaturized intelligent sensor systems for detection of chemical and biological agents; nanofibers for protective clothing; nanoporous materials for selective separation of molecules; and new mechanisms to disrupt biological agent viability. The latter has yielded particularly exciting breakthroughs, such as employing certain classes of proteins to change the properties of toxic biological molecules.

The other members of the task force are Mark Coffey (TRW), Harold Craighead (Cornell), Leonard C. Feldman (Vanderbilt University), William R. Frazer (University of California, Berkeley), Gerard P. Gilfoyle (University of Richmond), Martin V. Goldman (University of Colorado), Beverly K. Hartline (Argonne National Laboratory), and Paul Wolf (Air Force Institute of Technology).

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette