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March / April 2004


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Securing the Home Front

 


Securing the Home Front
University of Maine expertise contributes to national homeland security efforts

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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 structure.

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 device.

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 ballpark."

"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 year.

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
March-April, 2004

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