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Eddies And Echoes To Thwart Smugglers

August 5, 1997
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Smugglers, beware. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers have developed two portable detection systems that can detect quickly and accurately everything from the contents of a soda pop can to strategic metals used to make nuclear weapons.

RICHLAND, Wash. -- Smugglers, beware. Pacific Northwest NationalLaboratory researchers have developed two portable detectionsystems that can detect quickly and accurately everything fromthe contents of a soda pop can to strategic metals used to makenuclear weapons.

The Material Identification System and the Ultrasonic Pulse Echoinstrument, currently in use by the U.S. Customs Service and theDepartment of Energy's Hanford Site, are being provided tocustoms inspectors in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Unionrepublics.

"With both systems, we have taken basic measurementtechnologies--eddy current and ultrasound--and provided new,sophisticated applications that are extremely user-friendly,"said Pacific Northwest senior research scientist Richard Pappas.

Although the devices have traveled separate development paths,they now are viewed as companion technologies and an effectiveone-two punch for border security.

Material Identification System

Development of the Material Identification System began in 1993. "A U.S. Customs official visiting Pacific Northwest wasimpressed by a demonstration of an eddy current device that wasable to tell the difference between nickels, dimes and othercoins," Pappas explained. "Because most metals, including thoseused for strategic purposes, are similar in appearance, it ishard, if not impossible, for border inspectors to visuallydetermine whether a metal is what it's purported to be.

"U.S. Customs felt a device that could discriminate betweenmetals would be a useful tool for their inspectors," he added.

With initial funding from DOE, Pappas and Pacific Northwestengineer Jim Skorpik completed the first Material IdentificationSystem several months later.

The system is composed of a laptop computer with a plug-ininstrument card that operates a hand-held probe. As the probeis passed over a piece of metal, the instrument card measuresthe flow of electrical currents through the metal. Ease offlow--or, alternately, resistance--varies from one metal toanother. Information gathered through this process is used bythe computer for comparison and reconciliation against anextensive U.S. Customs data base. The computer lets the userknow whether the metal is, in fact, what is declared orpurported to be, and also indicates the most likely identity ofthe metal. The inspector may search the data base foradditional information including the classification of the metaland regulations that apply.

In addition to detecting strategic metals, which could be usedto make nuclear weapons, the Material Identification Systemhelps border inspectors determine if a shipment of metals hasbeen labeled fraudulently to avoid a higher duty fee.

But applications are not limited to customs-related work. Thesystem is used at the Hanford Site to inspect excessed equipmentbefore it is sold as surplus to the public. This is aprecaution to help identify items that may impose special exportcontrols requirements on the person or organization purchasingthem.

Ultrasonic Pulse Echo

The Ultrasonic Pulse Echo instrument, based on ultrasoundtechnology, originally was developed by Pacific Northwest staffto inspect chemical weapon stockpiles in Iraq following the 1991Gulf War. A hand-held device roughly the size and shape of alarge ping-pong paddle, the instrument houses a computer, islinked to a data library and sensor head, and can determine thecontents of a sealed container.

The sensor, which transmits ultrasonic pulses and detects anyreturn echoes, is positioned on the outside wall of thecontainer. As sound waves are transmitted, the return echoesbouncing off the other side of the container are analyzed interms of time-of-flight and amplitude decay to identify thecharacteristics of the contents and compare those featuresagainst information in the data library.

In addition to characterization, the Ultrasonic Pulse Echo canmeasure how full a container is, and determine whether there areany cavities or hidden packages within the container that mighthold drugs or other smuggled goods.

"This instrument and the Material Identification System arereliable and can provide information in a matter of seconds, butthey should not be viewed as end-alls," Pappas emphasized. "Border inspectors simply don't have time to conduct a search ofthe contents of every vehicle passing through a border point. But if experience and intuition tell them a particular shipmentwarrants suspicion, they then could turn to these systems."

The U.S. On-Site Inspection Agency recently ordered 10 sets ofthe equipment for use at borders in Russia, other new republicsand Eastern Europe. Smuggling is on the upswing in the regionwhile efforts to halt the transport of illicit goods have beenhindered by a lack of funding, adequately trained personnel andtechnology.

"There is an immediate need for technologies to assistinternational border control and enforcement," said Bill Cliff,program manager for international border security in PacificNorthwest's national security directorate. "The development anddeployment of advanced interdiction equipment is an importantcontribution to the United States' efforts to strengtheninternational border controls."

Cliff noted that the U.S. Customs Service and Pacific Northwestwill use the Material Identification System and the UltrasonicPulse Echo instrument when training foreign border enforcementofficials at the Hazardous Materials Management and EmergencyResponse (HAMMER) training facility at Hanford, beginning thisfall.

Also, the State Department and other agencies have expressedinterest in providing the systems to Cypress, Malta and othercountries where the units have been requested.


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Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "Eddies And Echoes To Thwart Smugglers." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 August 1997. <>.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. (1997, August 5). Eddies And Echoes To Thwart Smugglers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 26, 2017 from
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "Eddies And Echoes To Thwart Smugglers." ScienceDaily. (accessed April 26, 2017).