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World: New Technology Helps Scientists Sniff Out Land Mines

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 26 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An American scientist says exciting new technology under development at a U.S. laboratory will help improve the detection and removal of land mines around the world.

Ron Woodfin, a de-mining expert at the Sandia National Laboratories in the southwestern U.S. state of New Mexico, told RFE/RL that special high-tech equipment is being built at the lab which will be able to chemically and electronically sniff out land mines.

Woodfin says the most promising technology under development at the lab, which is run by the U.S. Department of Energy, is the chemical sensing equipment.

Woodfin says that all land mines emit special chemical molecules as a result of the explosive materials they contain. He says the lab has developed a portable chemical sensing device that incorporates the technology of "ion mobility spectrometry" -- or the detection and classification of minute quantities of explosives. This is the same technology used by security staff at airports to detect explosives.

Woodfin says chemical sensing technology takes a different approach than the most common de-mining equipment in use today -- anomaly detectors. Anomaly detectors are devices that notice something unusual or unexpected in the environment. Chemical sensing devices, says Woodfin, look for tiny chemical signatures of a land mine, rather than the container holding the explosives.

Also under development at the lab, says Woodfin, is a mobile x-ray machine that will be able to accurately detect land mines. The machine will be so precise, he says, that it will be able to ascertain the type of mine and even the location of its fuse, which is an important factor for extracting it safely.

Woodfin says the lab is still about a year away from constructing a prototype of the x-ray machine. However, he says that two prototypes of the portable chemical sensing equipment have already been built and are expected to start trial tests soon.

Woodfin says the chemical sensing machine is about the size of a large notebook binder, and together with its batteries weighs under nine kilograms.

Says Woodfin: "It's definitely portable and easy to carry around."

Woodfin says he doesn't know how soon the prototypes could be manufactured for worldwide distribution.

Says Woodfin: "We just do the science here. Now it is time for the companies and manufacturers to step in."

Woodfin says the new technology will compliment the anomaly detectors, not replace them.

Metal detectors are the most common form of mine detection, he says, but unfortunately have a high rate of false alarms in battle zones filled with all kinds of metal debris, including bullet casings. They are also ineffective against many of today's more advanced plastic mines, he adds.

Woodfin says other types of anomaly detectors rely on microwave and electrical conductivity, infrared and ground-penetrating radar. But he adds that this equipment alone has proven to be costly with a low level of accuracy.

Says Woodfin: "The reason we are working on chemical detection, for example, is that the only thing all of these mines have in common is explosives. And the explosives are the dangerous part of the mine .... So what we are trying to do is find a tool that you can use with some of the other types of detectors -- to sort out the things that have explosives in them from the things that do not."

Woodfin says to date, there is no one technology that can consistently detect all types of mines under every condition. He says that kind of specialized de-mining technology "just isn't there yet," and there are too many different kinds of land mines hidden under enormously varied conditions.

In fact, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), there are over 100 million land mines scattered across 70 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. Among the most severely affected countries are: Angola, Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Cambodia, Iraq (Kurdistan), Laos and Vietnam.

The ICRC estimates that 800 people worldwide are killed by land mines every month, and another 1,200 are maimed.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the ICRC says that in 1996, an average of 50 persons worldwide were injured by mines and unexploded materials each month, with 20 percent of the victims being children under the age of 18.

The U.S. Department of Defense believes that Bosnia has about 3 million land mines, and Croatia another 3 million. NATO officials have said that no more than 30 percent of them have been mapped.

The ICRC says that approximately 100,000 land mines are cleared around the world each year, but another two million are laid.

In December, 121 countries signed an international anti-personnel land mine treaty. The U.S. was not among the signatories, neither was Russia, China and Israel.

U.S. President Bill Clinton said the most pressing reason for America not to sign the treaty was the need for land mines on the border between North and South Korea.

But despite the U.S.'s refusal to stop laying mines, Woodfin says he is glad to be helping develop a technology that perhaps someday will help rid the world of what he calls "a deadly pollutant."

Says Woodfin: "Even if everyone stopped laying mines today, it still would take a thousand years to clear those now in the ground throughout the world. In my mind, [land mines] are the worst form of pollution mankind has ever come with, bar none."