New Airport Screening Tech Aims to Improve Identification of Liquids

The MagRay system seeks to quickly and accurately distinguish between liquids that may be safe on a commercial aircraft versus those that are prohibited or dangerous.

by News Staff / November 27, 2013

Wishing you could bring back some of your family’s homemade gravy in your carry on after Thanksgiving? Scientists are working on new airport screening technology that aims to identify dangerous liquids from those that aren’t, just like that secret-recipe gravy you’ve been waiting for all year.

New detection technology has been developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists that may provide a breakthrough for screening liquids at airport security. Combining advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology and low-power X-ray data has released this new detection innovation that could potentially benefit both airport security and passengers.

Called MagRay, the system’s goal is to quickly and accurately distinguish between liquids that may be safe on a commercial aircraft versus those that are prohibited. For example, white wine and nitromethane, a liquid that can be used in explosives, may appear identical, yet one is highly dangerous. MagRay could potentially provide the key to discerning between the liquids quickly.

“One of the challenges for the screening of liquids in an airport is that, while traditional X-ray based baggage scanners provide high throughput with good resolution of some threats, there is limited sensitivity and selectivity for liquid discrimination,” said Michelle Espy, a Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist and MagRay project leader, in a press release. “While MRI can differentiate liquids, there are a certain class of explosives — those that are complex, homemade or may have mixes of all kinds of stuff — that are more challenging.”

Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, the scientists combined advanced MRI technology with X-ray, which unlocked new information that’s not provided by either tool independently.

“We’re looking for where a liquid lies in a sort of three-dimensional space of MRI, proton content and X-ray density,” said Larry Schultz, a MagRay engineer. “With those measures we find that benign liquids and threat liquids separate real nicely in this space, so we can detect them quickly with a very high level of confidence.”

In the following video from the national laboratory, the team explains how the technology operates as well as what the next steps will be in transitioning the system to the private sector.