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Lab working on three U.S. security projects

Bay Cities News Service
Thursday November 29, 2001

Officials at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced Wednesday that lab researchers are working on three projects that could strengthen homeland security and help combat terrorist activities. 

Lab researchers recently went to Washington, D.C. to brief Secretary of Energy Spencer Braham and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge on the projects’ progress, which are only a few of the more than 24 technologies being developed by the Department of Energy. 

Researchers are developing a screening device to help authorities look into cargo containers and luggage to detect explosives, a training kit that helps first responders evaluate the threat of chemical or biological exposure to buildings, and a catalogue of the DNA of potentially dangerous biological agents. 

The Compact Neutron Source is a portable device that uses neutrons to rapidly screen the contents of baggage, air cargo and mail for explosives or fissionable materials. 

Although similar devices already are available in large sizes, portable machines would be ideal for spot and continuous checks of large containers. 

These portable devices, which run on electricity and not radioactive sources, like the current models, work on power that is a thousand times greater than the power source on existing machines, allowing for the detection of smaller objects, faster screening and a clearer discrimination amongst materials inside a container. 

The initial prototype of this tool is expected to be complete in three months. At least five, and up to 10 machines, will be deployed within the next nine months. 

The laboratory’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division is responsible for the second project being developed – a building occupant protection guide, which is designed to help first responders and occupants respond to a building site that may have been attacked with chemical or biological agents. 

The guide is presented as an informational booklet, which explains how contamination spreads through office buildings so rescue workers can move to minimize the impact of the contamination and cut down on exposure. 

The guide helps emergency responders, building owners and occupants determine where exposure will be the greatest and where contamination is likely to spread. 

A draft guide is complete and ready for review by a focus group. Its production and distribution will follow soon after. 

The third project is a rapid DNA sequencer of microbial pathogens. 

The goal of this project is to develop a complete DNA sequence catalogue of potential microbes that could be used during terrorist attacks.  

Such a catalogue would help scientists identify bacteria strains and determine if a suspected strain is or is not infectious, and help researchers create antidotes to bioterrorist agents. 

The sequencing of so-called biothreat agents is ready to begin in the next three weeks. Research will be conducted at the Department Of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, which is led by scientists from national laboratories in Berkeley, Livermore and Los Alamos. 

The Joint Genome Institute has developed a rapid, cost-effective sequencing process that can sequence microbes in one to three days.