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IIT-Bombay Incubated Firm’s Device Detects Deadly Explosives in Less Than 10 Secs

Developed by NanoSniff Technologies, an IIT-Bombay incubated startup, in partnership with Vehant Technologies, the NanoSniffer is the world’s first microsensor-based explosive trace detector.

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NanoSniffer, the world’s first microsensor-based explosive trace detector (ETD), developed by NanoSniff Technologies, an IIT-Bombay incubated startup, can detect dangerous explosives like Nitroglycerine, Ammonium Nitrate and RDX in less than 10 seconds.

Costing just one-third of the price of imported ETDs, the 100 per cent indigenously-made NanoSniffer can also identify and classify explosives into different classes of military, conventional and homemade explosives.

Once it provides trace detection of explosives weighing in nanograms (one nanogram is equal to one-millionth of a milligram), the NanoSniffer alerts security personnel with a sunlight-readable colour display attached to the device giving out visible and audible alerts.

Given the nature of threats that high-security installations like airports, railway stations, metro stations, hotels, shopping complexes, malls or places of worship face, it’s imperative that they are equipped with quality explosive detection capabilities. Launched earlier this month, the NanoSniff is looking to address its security requirements.

“The primary motivation behind the creation of the NanoSniffer was to indigenise our technology since no one has made it in India. Prior to the creation of the NanoSniffer, our startup was building miniaturised sensors for various sensing applications. Our idea was also to see how we could build a low-cost affordable device relevant to the Indian market. The MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) sensor we developed could detect explosives at an affordable cost,” Kapil Bardeja, co-founder of Vehant Technologies and director, NanoSniff Technologies, tells The Better India.

Explosives
The NanoSniffer

How Does The Tech Work?

In a document shared with The Better India, NanoSniff Technologies explains how it works.

“The user will swipe the surface of persons, vehicles, and bags; and therefore, will collect explosives particles on a ‘Swipe’. This Swipe will be inserted into the instrument, where the collected sample will be transferred to the microheater sensor via evaporation from the swipe. Using the principle of differential calorimetry the microheater detects whether the sample collected on the Swipe was an explosive or not,” it states.

“When security personnel swipes a bag, they try to obtain traces of the particles which they want to detect and insert it into the analyser. Using a micro-heater, our device delivers a rapid temperature shock to the particles with everything burning at 300 degrees Celsius. If they are explosives, they exhibit different behaviour than non-explosives. So, we deliver a rapid temperature push to the traces at a nanoscale. But how do you differentiate between something burning and exploding at that scale? We look at the thermal signature, carry out this rapid deflagration event and discern the signature of an explosive. We then use a pattern recognition technique to distinguish between an explosive and non-explosive signature. Going further, the device assesses the explosive and classifies them into different categories like Nitramines (RDX, HMX), Nitroaromatics (TNT), etc.,” says Kapil.

As the NanoSniff Technologies document states, “The detection decision is backed by High-speed Electronics and Sophisticated Signal Processing algorithms. It can detect even less than 10 nanograms of explosives. The sensitivity capability was validated by the High Energy Materials Research Laboratory (HEMRL) under DRDO in Pune. Our approach has been to detect ‘classes’ of explosives; we have been successful in that. Since the approach is Physics-based, it applies to other materials of the same class.”

So far, the startup has tested the NanoSniffer on 17 different kinds of explosives.

“NanoSniff was started with the idea that we’ll be sniffing explosives. The sensor initially thought of was based on micro-cantilevers. Unfortunately, about a year and a half into our work, we realised that the selectivity of the sensors was very poor and making them in scale would be very difficult. We then shifted our strategy from a chemistry-based to a physics-based approach and used what is known as micro-heated sensors. We developed a scalable process for that,” says Dr. Nitin Kale, co-founder.

And yet, no mechanical sniffer has been reliably shown to match the performance of sniffer dogs under field conditions. Kapil admits that sniffer dogs are the best in detecting explosives.

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“There is nothing more sensitive and selective than a sniffer dog. However, there are practical concerns with employing sniffer dogs. These dogs work on the principle of their outstanding olfactory senses. Their ability to sniff extends to about two to three hours, following which they need at least a three-hour break to rejuvenate their senses. If you have to conduct round the clock checks, you need to have two or three sniffer dogs working in rotation. Also, every dog needs a handler and thus additional operators. It’s an impractical and expensive way of detecting explosives throughout the day in places like airports or hotels. Devices like the NanoSniffer are meant to be used in conjunction with sniffer dogs,” claims Kapil.

Collaboration and Years of Work

Working alongside NanoSniff Technologies on this device was Vehant Technologies, an IIT-Delhi incubated venture with expertise in security screening systems like X-ray baggage scanners.

Since Vehant Technologies has worked with major establishments like airports, metro stations, hotels and malls, they helped Nanosniff Technologies spell out and define the technical requirements and specifications for the device.

“They offered further productisation support in terms of box casing and making it temperature-proof. Those inputs came from Vehant. But the primary technology of sensors, electronics and pattern recognition was built by us,” says Kapil.

Developing the core technology of this explosives trace detector (ETD) has taken about 13 years with efforts led by Professor Soumyo Mukherji, Professors V Ramgopal Rao and Dr Nitin Kale of IIT-Bombay, who are all co-founders of the startup. However, the technology was taken to the next level when they established the startup in 2011.

At Nanosniff, it took about three years to develop the sensors, two years to build the device, another two years to test and validate and launch three prototypes before the NanoSniffer came into being.

In its decade-long existence, the startup has been funded by founders, angel investors (Priyas Investments), grants (GCC, BIRAC, GITA etc), and crowd-sourcing (1Crowd). Since its inception, the startup has raised funding to the tune of about Rs 12 crore. But how do they expect business to move going forward?

“Our customers are airports, train stations, metro stations, high-security government installations, private companies, hotels, places of worship or commercial complexes. These are places with a large asset base of humans or capital, and places where a terror attack can create havoc. We can’t disclose the exact price of this device, but it’s one-third the price of existing imported ETDs. Our device is 100 per cent Made in India, including sensors that are built in the semiconductor labs of IISc Bangalore. The core technology of NanoSniffer is protected by patents in the US and Europe. While the core technology, sensor, assembling and software development for the Nanonsiffer is being done in-house at IIT-Bombay, third party vendors help us source other smaller components,” says Kapil.

At this juncture, the startup claims to have started demonstrations of their technology to potential customers and put in our bid for a couple of tenders.

“Suffice it to say, the NanoSniffer is a step towards achieving the government’s dream of ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’. With the development of this product, IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi along with their offshoot companies are making a sincere effort to boost the nation’s security with highly reliable and affordable indigenous products,” says Professor Ramgopal.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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