Homeland security push sparks ideas at Energy labs
- By John Moore
- Feb 17, 2002
Last November, eight Energy Department laboratories hosted what could be described as a counterterrorism science fair.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham led Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge on a review of more than two dozen technologies, all intended to keep America safer and all developed in Energy's network of laboratories. The array of sensors, spectrometers and holographic imagers on display at Energy headquarters caused Abraham to remark that he "felt a little bit like Q ," who is the gadget master of James Bond films.
As well he might. The 24-or-so projects on exhibit were just a sampling of what Energy's labs have to offer. Scientists are redirecting research in fields such as computer simulation, nuclear fuels, gene sequencing and acoustics into homeland security initiatives, laboratory officials said.
"We have a lot of technology [that] can be applied to the homeland security initiative," said Harvey Drucker, associate lab director for energy and environmental research and technology at Argonne National Laboratory. He said the labs were exhibiting various ideas and prototypes.
The laboratories' emergence as a key player in counterterrorism technology may seem out of character. But for years, the labs have played a behind-the-scenes role in national security, with some facilities generating 40 percent or more of their business volume in that area.
"This is a natural extension for the labs," said Leif Ulstrup, vice president of homeland security at American Management Systems Inc. "I would think DOE has a significant leg up and a lot of value to add." He cited the labs' research in nuclear, biological and chemical agents.
Indeed, the labs have a wealth of research and development (R&D) efforts to exploit. But harnessing their collective capabilities poses some challenges. Labs and their industry partners are faced with translating sophisticated technologies into products that can be readily deployed and supported in the field. Fortunately, in some cases, off-the-shelf electronics and information technology products are making counterterrorism devices easier to use and maintain.
The sheer number of technologies to consider is another obstacle. Thus far, no single federal entity is stepping forward to coordinate or evaluate the labs' creative output. Government sources indicate that discussions to improve coordination are under way, but in the meantime, no formal connection exists between the Office of Homeland Security and the labs' activities. Money is another challenge as the labs vie for R&D funding. The labs' sensor, gene sequencing and medical research, and other activities each want funding priority — a situation reminiscent of the military services' budget competition.
Still, the labs represent a potentially potent line of defense in the war against terrorism.
"We find ourselves at the genesis of a new arms race," said Ralph James, associate laboratory director for energy, environment and national security at Brookhaven National Laboratory. "Terrorists are racing to acquire weapons of mass destruction. We ought to be racing to stop them."
A Renewed Purpose for Research
A number of labs have a head start in the race against terrorists in light of their national security background. "The labs have been looking at what we can do to address the national needs in national security for some time," James said.
The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, for example, has been working on armor technology for military customers since the mid-1980s. Today, the lab manufactures armor for the Army's M1A1 battle tank. But the labs' background in atomic energy is perhaps the impetus behind today's counterterrorism activities.
From directing the nation's research in nuclear weapons, the labs developed the science of verifying arms control treaties and monitoring weapons programs. Now they are mobilizing against a newer threat. James said the black market for "special nuclear materials" has increased the number of parties that could build a nuclear weapon. "Certainly our intent is to keep these sorts of materials out of the hands of terrorists," he said.
Accordingly, the labs are revisiting their arms control technologies. The objective: to keep tabs on nuclear materials that a terrorist could use to concoct "dirty bombs" or primitive nuclear devices. Workers at Brookhaven, for example, are working on a sensor capable of identifying a nuclear threat in ships or other vehicles from a distance.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is shifting the purpose of its technology as well. The Acoustic Inspection Device (see box, above), which can identify hidden compartments inside liquid-filled containers, was originally created for weapons inspections in Iraq. Then, the Customs Service asked the lab to modify the technology for use in detecting drugs. Now, the device, based on commercial handheld computer technology, is expected to play an anti- terrorism role at Customs.
Mehl, Griffin and Bartek Ltd., a consulting, business development and government affairs firm based in Alexandria, Va., has the prime contract to commercialize the device, which recently went into production. Initially, 100 units will be manufactured each month, but that could increase to 400 a month based on demand, said Clifford Block, vice president of business development at Mehl, Griffin and Bartek.
Other labs are translating experience in environmental science into homeland security efforts. Although counterterrorism projects aren't the typical fare for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, spokes.man Ron Kolb cited the lab's "expertise in compatible areas."
The lab's computer-based studies of air movement within buildings, for example, "seemed appropriate for tracking bioterrorist agents within buildings," he said. As a result, the lab has produced a Building Occupant Protection Guide designed to help emergency workers understand how chemical and biological agents disperse.
The task of retooling technology for counterterrorism is far from easy, experts say.
For example, radiological sensors designed to detect a plant making nuclear material must be cooled to minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes the instrument bulky, heavy and impractical for many field applications, Brookhaven's James said. Brookhaven, however, is working on a battery-powered, room-temperature xenon spectrometer.
The portable device, ready for field testing, is about the size of a suitcase. The lab's objective is to create inexpensive, field-portable sensors that have greater sensitivity and the specificity to identify dangerous agents, James said.
Although the labs are retrofitting their technology, they must do so with an eye toward commercialization. Some observers say the actual process of building counterterrorism products is hazy. Drucker, of the Argonne lab, said the Defense Department had a well-defined path for taking a technology — a biological agent detector, for instance — and making it into a military device. The Pentagon's so-called "6 Series" plots an R&D course from basic research to operational system developme
The approach works well for building a few thousand units for military personnel. But Drucker pointed out that developing detection devices for numerous airports, hotels and businesses at a price comparable to that of a carbon.-monoxide monitor is another story.
"To me, the commercial path for that is not clear," Drucker said.
Both form factor and production volume were issues for the the Pacific Northwest lab's Acoustic Inspection Device. Block, of Mehl, Griffin and Bartek, said the original device was bulky.
"It wasn't something you could buy thousands of," he said. The device employed a tablet PC and a sensor, and its high power consumption required the user to wear a battery belt. The refined device, however, features a Pocket PC with a built-in battery and a power-drill-sized sensor unit that uses a standard battery pack, Block said.
Deciding which R&D projects to pursue and commercialize is another issue. "It must be a tremendous challenge to filter and give a relative ranking," said James, noting the "great deal" of proposals presented in Washington, D.C.
A standard approach for evaluation, however, has yet to materialize, according to observers. Alan Zelicoff, a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories' Center for National Security and Arms Control, would like to see a national test bed for medical surveillance systems. Sandia developed the Rapid Syndrome Validation Project, an early warning system for disease outbreaks.
Zelicoff said RSVP has been tested in a handful of state health offices and clinics, but contended this "grass-roots" effort was no substitute for a large-scale trial. RSVP and similar systems "should be tested in 200 sites," he said.
But the basic relationship between the Homeland Security Office and the labs has yet to be determined. "A number of task forces are trying to figure out what role Energy will have and how the labs can serve the Office of Homeland Security," said Steve Martin, senior program manager for the national security division and director of the counter-terrorism program at Pacific Northwest.
That being said, the Energy labs might be in for the most exposure they've had in years. "Many people are not even aware of what the labs do and their role in national security," Ulstrup said. "It's exciting to see an opportunity for the labs to focus on something that so many Americans are focused on."
Moore is a freelance writer based in Chantilly, Va.