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BYU scientist creates chemical detector

Portable device can be used by troops, police

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BYU scientist Milt Lee started work on his chemical detector after 9/11.

BYU scientist Milt Lee started work on his chemical detector after 9/11.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU

AMERICAN FORK — When U.S. Army special forces infiltrate a factory, they need to know quickly whether they've found chemical weapons so they can call in an airstrike.

Similar speedy information is important to soldiers who believe they have been exposed to a chemical attack or to police and firefighters who respond to a terrorist attack or a spill that could include hazardous materials.

Completely reliable information about chemicals in an attack or a spill has not been available without taking samples to a laboratory, but now Brigham Young University scientist Milt Lee and the American Fork company he co-founded have created a miniaturized, lightweight device that recalls the fictional Tricorder of the TV and movie franchise "Star Trek."

"This is a historic occasion for Brigham Young University," said Mike Alder, head of the university's technology transfer office. "(On Wednesday), we signed an exclusive licensing agreement with Torion Technologies, which has licensed 10 patents from BYU. Because we did, the world is a safer place."

The Guardion-7 chemical detector is a 28-pound portable device that can detect, without false positives and with exact specificity, a wide range of chemicals in fewer than five minutes, even in harsh environments like the Iraqi desert.

The U.S. Department of Defense, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and other Army-related industries have provided $5 million in grants for the development of the Guardion-7, Torion president Douglas Later said.

Later once was one of Lee's lab assistants at BYU and has teamed with him to start companies before. A team of 20 consultants on the project includes other BYU professors and students.

Lee set out with his brother Edgar after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to create a chemical detector that would be so simple that a soldier or firefighter could use it with minimal training while wearing the maximum hazardous-material protection gear.

The briefcase-sized Guardion-7, which costs $55,000, has a red on-off switch and three black buttons for easy use. Edgar Lee used a large syringe-like device during a press conference Thursday to take a sample from a jumbo Wintergreen-flavored Lifesaver.

The syringe, constructed to be easy to handle while wearing unwieldy protective gloves, injected a polymer wire into the Lifesaver package. Lee then plunged the syringe into a heated injection port in the machine. The chemical sample was vaporized out of the polymer film and directed through a capillary tube to a miniaturized gas chromatograph, where it was separated.

The chemicals then were filtered to a miniaturized mass spectrometer, which fragmented the ions in the sample and provided a chemical fingerprint to be compared to the chemicals stored in the machine's software.

Within minutes, the Guardion-7 hit on a harmless agent in the Lifesaver that is similar to chemicals in some drugs.

The machine can detect everything from nerve agents to flammable accelerants used by arsonists, most explosives, toxic chemicals, drugs of abuse and organic compounds.

Torion has produced 15 pre-production models of the Guardion-7. The government owns 11 already.

The company is constructing a manufacturing floor in American Fork and has a partnership with Smiths Detection, which manufactures wands to screen airline passengers and machines that X-ray luggage, to sell the Guardion-7 to its market.

The real innovation of the invention is the miniaturization of the gas chromatograph and the toroidal ion trap mass spectrometer, plus the combination of the two.

Gas chromatographs have required an oven to produce heat, but Lee's invention reduced the size of the device to that of a matchbox. The mass spectrometer in the Guardion-7 is smaller than large pill bottle. Combined, Lee's team still managed to dramatically reduce the power needed to run the two.

"This will run on about 80 watts, using 24-volt batteries," Later said.

Previous detectors, or "sniffers," couldn't positively identify a chemical or avoid false positives.

"When you're in a battlefield environment where decision-making is critical, you'd like to know exactly what you're dealing with," Lee said. "We knew there was a need for a smart detector. Other detectors aren't definitive enough so you can go into a courtroom and say, here is the data and this was the chemical."

Tests for detecting nerve agents were done at Dugway Proving Grounds near Tooele. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency approved the machine's performance last month.

They will continue to attempt to shrink the size and weight of the machine, but their advertising campaign already plays up its portability.

"When we say portable," declares a picture with a mountain climber scaling a steep peak with a Guardion-7 hanging from his shoulders, "we mean portable."

Lee earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of Utah in the 1970s. Earlier this month, he was awarded a lifetime achievement award at a conference of 20,000 scientists in Pittsburgh.

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com