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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Professor develops magnetic resonance scanner to check for liquid explosives at airports

Bringing sunscreen and shampoo aboard your flight may no longer be such a hassle thanks to technology recently developed at UC Davis.

Associate chemistry professor Dr. Matthew Augustine’s magnetic resonance scanner uses a pulse of radio waves and a strong magnetic field to extract a signal, which shows the chemical structure of the liquid being tested. Originally designed to test the quality of wine in 2002, the technology may prove useful in checking liquids in closed containers at airport security checkpoints.

“It is projects like this one involving a private and public partnership based on easily understood science that satisfies a key university mission,” said Augustine in an e-mail interview. “The project underscores the importance of basic university research in the development of market ready technology and people, and in this poor economy demonstrates UC faculty service to the citizens of California.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate awarded a contract to Defense Capital Advisers, LLC of Denver to develop a resonance scanner suitable for airports that could quickly and efficiently check liquids for explosives without opening them.

The development of the scanner didn’t take long, Augustine said. After coming up with the idea on a Thursday, Augustine and a student built the equipment over the weekend and collected the first data the following Monday. Disclosure, patenting and licensing by the university took approximately a year to complete.

The idea to apply the scanner to liquids at airport security checkpoints came about through discussions between Augustine and his colleague Dr. Joe Broz, COO of Wine Scanner Inc. and managing partner with Defense Capital Advisors, LLC.

“The basic scanner technology was licensed from the University of California, Davis in 2006, and the support that the technology licensee, Madison Avenue Management Co., Inc has received from David McGee, Barbara Boczar and the whole Innovation Access and Sponsored Programs Office has been fantastic,” said Broz. “Their support has contributed greatly to the success of adapting this technology to the specific application of checkpoint security.”

Broz and Augustine agree that this technological development means a great deal to the university.

“From a ‘big picture’ perspective, the model of technology transfer that I see operating here at Davis should be adopted by all universities across the board,” said Broz. “It is exactly this type of public-private cooperation that schools – especially state universities – need to move toward to ensure maximum value to the school and to the taxpayer. Everybody wins.”

If successfully implemented, this resonance scanner could improve airport security by rapidly scanning for explosives in a noninvasive way, said Susan Ebeler, professor in the viticulture and enology department, in an e-mail interview.

“The work being done at Davis will lead to greater interest in research programs at Davis and may lead to increased funding for this type of work as well as spin-off companies that can contribute to economic development in the area,” Ebeler said.

An introductory amount of $800,000 has been awarded to Augustine to develop a prototype of the machine in his lab. The prototype machine as applied to homeland security applications is currently under construction.

KATIE LEVERONI can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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