Securing the Home Front
University of Maine expertise contributes to national homeland
At a time of airport jitters,
nationwide terror alerts and snipers on rooftops during holiday events,
University of Maine researchers are focusing their attention on new ways
to keep Americans safe. The challenge is daunting, driven by
anticipation of security risks in everything from the water we drink to
the computer networks that operate critical facilities. Drawing from
their expertise in information technology, chemistry, environmental
monitoring and structural engineering, UMaine scientists and engineers
are pushing our ability to detect threats early, gather information and
give an advantage to those who are charged with maintaining vigilance.
Among toxic nerve agents, VX may be the worst. An oily, odorless,
amber-colored liquid, it can cause death by skin contact. It also can
persist for days or months on surfaces. With support from a $1.25
million grant from the U.S. Army, Howard Patterson of the UMaine
Department of Chemistry is leading a research project to develop a
device to detoxify VX.
If Patterson and his partners — Applied Thermal Sciences Inc., (ATS) in
Sanford, Maine, and the Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in
Edgewood, Md. — are successful, their technology could be used to
destroy VX chemical warfare stocks and decontaminate the scene of a VX
release. Their approach depends on compounds known as zeolites,
naturally occurring volcanic minerals. Cat litter is an example of a
zeolite; engineers use these honeycombed minerals in industrial
processes. The Army has already reported that, without light, VX can be
broken down by zeolites that have silver ions in their molecular
In his Aubert Hall lab, Patterson and graduate student researchers have
found a way to speed up that process almost 100 fold. They reported in
2000 that silver-doped zeolites bathed in natural light can increase the
rate of pesticide decomposition. They're also studying zeolite
decomposition in other compounds, such as malathion.
With small concentrations (parts per million) of chemicals that simulate
the VX molecular structure, researchers will focus on the basic science
of VX decomposition, including the breakdown products and methods to
achieve the shortest reaction time. ATS, founded by UMaine graduate Karl
Hoose, will turn the results into an engineered device that will be
tested at Edgewood. In addition, Patterson plans to hire two
postdoctoral researchers who have an interest in commercializing the
technology and producing devices in Maine.
UMaine chemist Carl Tripp predicts that one day, emergency response
personnel arriving at the scene of a toxic chemical spill will have a
new life-saving tool at their side — a lightweight, portable device that
can identify chemicals in the air or water within seconds.
Since 1998, Tripp has collaborated with other scientists and engineers
at UMaine's Laboratory for Surface Science and Technology (LASST) on
projects to develop such devices. Focusing on the fundamental properties
of thin semiconducting metal oxide films, they create quarter-size
sensor prototypes that are sensitive to toxic agents.
This winter, Tripp took another step forward by combining that knowledge
with efforts to miniaturize a well-understood laboratory technique known
as infrared spectroscopy. He is working with Paul Millard of the
Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Their immediate goal
is to address persistent non-volatile compounds, such as VX nerve agent,
in water. His project, dubbed "Puddle in the Corner," has attracted a
hefty pool — $1 million — of U.S. Army research funds to develop the
The biggest problem with toxic compound-detecting sensors, says Tripp,
is the high rate of false alarms. They can be set off by more than the
agents they are designed to detect. The key to Tripp's technology is an
adsorbent material that fits hand-in-glove with the molecular structures
of toxic agents. The material concentrates and filters toxic compounds
from water; the highly specific infrared spectrometer then identifies
them and determines how much is present.
The next step is to integrate sampling protocols in a small instrument
that will require little operator intervention. Tripp is working with
ABB Inc., in Quebec to develop the miniaturized infrared spectrometer
that he will combine with the sensor platform. Eventually, he hopes to
establish a company to manufacture the portable units.
Meanwhile, other UMaine labs are pursuing different sensor technologies
for similar purposes. In the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for
Environmental and Watershed Research, John Peckenham and Steve Kahl are
proposing a continuous monitoring system for lakes. Their project has
drawn favorable review from water utilities.
The rockier a coastline, the better, from Karl Schlenker's point of
view. Schlenker is a member of the physical oceanography group in the
School of Marine Sciences. He is installing a new network of stations in
the Gulf of Maine that use a radar-like technology known as CODAR to
gather information about currents and wave heights on the ocean surface.
Such information can assist rescue personnel, fishermen and other
mariners by giving them a detailed look at sea conditions 24 hours a
day, in all sorts of weather. CODAR is sold commercially by a West Coast
firm, CODAR Ocean Sensors Inc. The stations, each equipped with a
low-frequency transmitter and receiver, are designed to monitor waves
and currents up to 124 miles from land. Five CODAR stations are
currently planned as part of the regional system known as the Gulf of
Maine Ocean Observing System (GoMOOS).
CODAR stations are currently installed in Penobscot Bay, Cape Cod and
Nova Scotia. Additional facilities are planned for the Down East coast
and southern Maine, according to Linda Mangum, research associate and
GoMOOS data manager.
A network of CODAR stations could one day be used to track vessels on
the high seas. Neal Pettigrew, UMaine oceanographer and chief scientist
for GoMOOS, is working with colleagues at Rutgers University and CODAR
Ocean Sensors to develop the technology into a round-the-clock tracking
system for ocean vessels in America's coastal waters. To achieve the
necessary coverage, antennae would be installed on the buoys and on
land. Making practical use of CODAR data also would demand new
interpretation and analysis capabilities, he says.
The researchers are looking at new buoy technology that would include
better hull designs and an elastic tether to reduce tendencies for the
buoys to pitch and roll. The current CODAR antennae are about 40 feet
long, which makes them vulnerable to storm damage.
The term "cybersecurity" usually refers to the protection of computer
networks from external attack. George Markowsky, UMaine computer
scientist and mathematician, has reversed the concept. Networks like the
Internet can be used to monitor potential threats to safety and
security, he says. Moreover, new sensor systems can be combined with
developing wireless communications and information technologies to
enhance public safety.
Markowsky combines public and private sector research efforts to address
security issues. He owns Trefoil Inc., a software company in Orono,
Maine, and helped to establish the Multi-Sector Crisis Management
Consortium (www.mscmc.org), a nonprofit organization in the state that
counts among its members the National Center for Supercomputing
Applications and the University of Maine.
Markowsky also has created a homeland security laboratory in the
Department of Computer Science and brought experts to campus to give
presentations on issues such as weapons inspections, border policies and
security precautions for marine commerce.
Techniques for monitoring the Internet for security threats are a goal
of what Markowsky calls the Web Neighborhood Watch project in his
laboratory. Gene Connolly, a computer science master's student who
graduated in 2003, took a first step in that effort by developing a
method to find the geographic location of a computer based on Internet
traffic and identification numbers that are unique to every machine.
Although unsuccessful in linking a computer to a street address or even
a single community, Connolly demonstrated that "you can get in the
"If people are going to use the Internet to make threats, they're also
going to leave information about themselves," says Markowsky.
As the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 showed, a building's structural
resilience has life and death consequences for its inhabitants.
Researchers at UMaine's Advanced Engineered Wood Composites (AEWC)
Center are developing standards for tough new composite structures
designed to withstand both terrorist-related and natural disasters. They
are working with the military and government agencies, as well as
private companies, on ways to apply new composite technologies to
bridges, ships, buildings and other facilities.
One research project funded by the U.S. Navy focuses on composite panel
performance and manufacturing. Engineers are testing commercially made
panels in an effort to help industry make products for Navy ships that
have consistent strength characteristics. For the Coast Guard, AEWC is
working on new high-strength materials to replace aging piers, retaining
walls and walkways.
Meanwhile, improvements to wood structures may benefit home
construction. Analysis of structures damaged by storms, earthquakes and
other disasters has found that weakness can exist where panels are
attached to structural members. Graduate student Keith Martin is
designing, building and testing panels of fiber-reinforced polymer
materials that could be used in disaster-resistant housing.
Securing borders is a top safety concern, but changing rules can have
economic consequences. Understanding how evolving border policies are
affecting businesses that ship goods across the U.S.–Canada border is a
goal for Marie-Christine Therrien of the Maine Business School and
Georges Tanguay of the Department of Economics. Both are affiliated with
the Canadian-American Center at UMaine.
"We are interested in knowing if new regulations have led to more or
less efficiency for firms exporting across the border," she says.
With a seed grant from the Canadian embassy, Therrien and Tanguay will
interview officials at firms that participate in the estimated daily
$1.2 billion in trade between the two countries. They will seek
information from about 150 companies in Canada and the U.S. in the next
Ultimately, they would like to take a broader look at border policies.
"We will examine the choice of border policies aimed at reducing
terrorism in an international context. The recent resurgence of
terrorism and the resulting American war on terrorism have made border
security an important policy issue in Canada," says Therrien.
The issues are of interest to government agencies as well as businesses,
Therrien notes. Agencies need to share information about people and
goods crossing the border. Analysis of events leading up to Sept. 11,
2001 has highlighted gaps in targeting potential security risks. For
companies engaged in international trade, managers seek to minimize
shipping delays and other factors that can affect product costs.
Therrien and Tanguay are focusing on strategies for increasing trade
while simultaneously improving security.
Therrien has proposed an expansion of the border security project with
George Markowsky in the Department of Computer Science. She and Tanguay
also are working with Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Engineered
Wood Composites Center at UMaine, on a proposal to the National Science
Foundation to evaluate the reliability of the electric power grid in
eastern Canada and the U.S. If funded, the project would incorporate
vulnerability to terrorist threats, as well as structural and managerial
approaches to hazard reduction.
by Nick Houtman
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.