Ben Clough

Student Demonstrates New Method for Safe Detection of Bombs (With Video)

Sometimes the best ideas can occur when or where you least expect them. That’s what happened to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute doctoral student Benjamin Clough, who while on a family vacation in Mexico, came up with a method for extending the distance from which terahertz technology can remotely detect hidden explosives, chemicals and other dangerous materials.

“I think it just goes to show that it’s not necessarily when you’re in the office that you’re being the most creative, that your mind is working in the most creative way,” Clough said.

Clough’s project, known as Terahertz Enhanced Acoustics, wound up winning him the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize. The prize is awarded annually to a Rensselaer senior or graduate student who has created or improved a product or process, applied a technology in a new way, redesigned a system or demonstrated remarkable inventiveness in other ways.

“A lot of times in research you don’t really get these breaks every so often, so when one does come along you really have to enjoy it or live in the moment,” Clough said. “A lot of research is really just a lot of hard work that doesn’t necessarily lead to success.”

Terahertz Enhanced Acoustics is not a commercial product; it’s more accurately described as a proof of concept.

“It’s more of a demonstration that it’s possible to detect this electromagnetic radiation using acoustic waves,” Clough said. “I think in the future, with further development, it could become a commercial product, but at this stage it’s more of a research idea.”

The Rensselaer Center for Terahertz Research in Troy N.Y. applies terahertz wave technology for security and defense applications. One limitation of terahertz technology has always been that it only works over short distances, making it difficult to use in bomb or hazardous material detection.

As described in a news release from the school, Clough’s patent-pending solution to this problem is a new method for using sound waves to remotely “listen” to terahertz signals from a distance. Clough discovered that by using a sensitive microphone to “listen” to the plasma, he could detect terahertz wave information embedded in the sound waves. This audio information can then be converted into digital data and instantly checked against a library of known terahertz fingerprints, to determine the chemical composition of the mystery material.

Clough said there are still some challenges with applying the technology to the security field and further research and development is needed.

“With any new technology there are always a lot of hurdles to overcome. The biggest challenge is that for this technology you need to have an amplified laser system,” he said.

The amplified laser system brings up safety concerns, specifically eye safety, making implementation of the technology in its current state not feasible at an airport.

“We would be more interested in deploying this in some sort of a battlefield scenario, where you’re not as concerned about the enemy having their eye hurt by a laser,” Clough said. “You’re more concerned about the safety of the soldiers and trying to look for explosives at a safe range.”

Clough expects to graduate at the end of this year or early next year. He was recently awarded the SMART Scholarship from the Department of Defense. With this award, the DoD is funding Clough’s research for the next six months, then he will pay them back by moving to Washington, D.C. to work for the DoD for six months after he graduates. From there, he hopes to pursue research at a national lab.

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