Homeland Security Gets Small

Nanotechnology may be the key to homeland security.

Ultimately, fighting the war on terrorism may have less to do with giant aircraft carriers and more to do with atomic-scale detection and prevention systems. Nanotechnology, which is expected to transform everything from computer processors to drug delivery systems, may also be the key to homeland security, argues a new book.

In Nanotechnology and Homeland Security: New Weapons for New Wars (Prentice Hall, 2003), Mark A. Ratner, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University and a noted expert in molecular electronics, and his son Daniel Ratner, a high-tech entrepreneur, claim that current research in nanotechnology will lead to intelligent sensors, smart materials, and other methods for thwarting biological and chemical attacks.

"The number-one thing," says Daniel Ratner, "is going to be smart sensors. These could be immensely useful in finding weapons of mass destruction, for example. Today, you need a lab, and it takes days to analyze samples. In the future, a lab on a chip with nano-based sensors could give you a result in seconds."

Such devices could also protect seaports by scanning all incoming shipping containers. Like reusable litmus paper, nanodot particles could instantly change color upon detecting the presence of anthrax DNA strands.

And when sensors arent enough, nanotechnology could be used to minimize the effects of terrorist attacks. "There are products coming for explosive mitigation," explains Daniel Ratner. "One is a blast-retardant foam that acts like an airbag for buildings and could be used in future construction." While the authors believe nanotech research will be essential to homeland security, Daniel Ratner says, "The biggest advances are still three, five, and up to ten years away."