Cristian Pantea, an acoustic scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, helped create the Acoustic Collimated Beam which helps bomb squads get the data they need to characterize bombs. Courtesy photo
From supercomputers to artificial lungs, Los Alamos National Laboratory’s mission is to provide science and technology to meet national security challenges. The Faces of Innovation series focuses on seven scientists and engineers who are pioneering new technology and programs at Los Alamos. Their groundbreaking ideas, experiments, and data have big implications for national security. This article originally appeared in National Security Science Magazine.
When bomb squads are called to check out a potential bomb, they need answers to critical questions. Is the bomb a fake? If it’s real, is it stable enough to be defused, or could it explode at any second?
A Los Alamos–invented acoustic imaging device, called ACCObeam, is being repurposed to remove much of that uncertainty. Using ACCObeam’s sound waves, bomb techs of the future may be able to build 3D images of bombs without physically looking inside them.
Cristian Pantea, an acoustic scientist who helped create ACCObeam, or the Acoustic Collimated Beam, is working with a team to refine this device so that bomb squads can get all the data they need to make life-saving decisions in only a few minutes.
“The data ACCObeam gives us doesn’t provide all the answers, but it can at least show techs whether they’re dealing with a dud, something that could explode momentarily, or something that can be defused slowly and carefully,” Pantea says.
An early version of ACCObeam was invented years ago to assess the stability of gas and oil pipelines. The device emits a low-frequency, acoustic beam that’s ultra-narrow (collimated). Users can assess the makeup of almost any material in any medium, such as water, rock, or metal, simply by changing frequencies and seeing how the sound waves penetrate or reflect off different objects. The end result is a 3D image with excellent resolution. In action, ACCObeam can show objects’ imperfections and densities and even distinguish between different materials.
For all its power and precision, ACCObeam is also tiny—smaller than a human pinky fingernail. The device’s portable nature and great resolution gave its inventors the idea of using it to “see” inside bombs on location.
In practical terms, this kind of data could help guide bomb techs who often have to make an urgent choice: whether to defuse a suspected explosive on site or try to move it to a safe detonation zone.
“Our goal is to make this device so precise and easy to use that bomb squads could get all the data they need to make life-saving decisions in 5–10 minutes from the time they approach.” Pantea cautions that ACCObeam isn’t ready for prime time yet. More work is being done to test how well the prototype can discriminate between types of explosives.
Depending on the outcome of that research, Pantea and his teammates at Los Alamos hope to license the device in about five years. For bomb squads and the many people they protect, the device would be lifesaving.