July 2000

Mine detecting technology wins Discover Award

And Lab wins 3 R&D 100s

The concept takes the microcantilever sensor technology developed at ORNL and uses it to save lives. This year, in the humanitarian category, the Life Sciences Division’s Thomas Thundat has received a Discover Magazine Award for Technological Innovation.

Thundat joins elite company as a winner. He is one of just 19 Discover Award winners sifted from thousands of nominations.

With members of his team that include colleagues Moonis Ally of Energy Division, Zhiyu Hu of the Life Sciences Division and Panos Datskos of the Engineering Technology Division, Thundat has been pursuing the development of a small, inexpensive detector that can detect land mines in the field, or possibly even a hand-held device that could scan people and luggage for explosives.

Thomas Thundat received one of this year's 19 Discover Awards. ORNL also added three R&D 100s to its lab-leading total.
The technology is based on miniature micro-machined silicon cantilevers one-tenth the width of a human hair. The device, which would have parts-per-trillion sensitivity, works by absorbing TNT molecules given off by explosives. As the semiconductor material absorbs the TNT and is heated with power from a simple battery, the TNT molecules combust very rapidly, which is detected by an optical beam.

War-torn countries are often dotted with land mines left over from conflicts. The mines remain a threat years after hostilities have ceased and account for thousands of deaths and injuries, often of children. Mines also make traveling and agriculture hazardous in these countries. They are devastatingly simple to make and distribute and enormously expensive—not to mention dangerous—to find and remove.

Thundat looked into using the micro-cantilever technology to detect mines because land-mine detectors used today are cumbersome and costly. He says it takes $3 to make a land mine and about $1,000 to find and remove it, putting those removing them at a distinct disadvantage.

He hopes his invention will make detectors small and economical. If funding materializes, he’s shooting for a prototype in the next two years that can be used outside the laboratory.

It takes $3 to make a land mine and about $1,000 to find and remove it.
Life and limb literally hang in the balance, making the award’s humanitarian status obvious.

“The Discover Award is a measure of the science and technology leadership of the Department of Energy’s national laboratories,” says Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. “Oak Ridge National Laboratory is paving the way in developing new land-mine detection technology that will not only improve security throughout the world, but will save lives.”

Thundat is the only repeat finalist since the award was first given in 1990. He was a finalist in 1998 in the sight category for his micromechanical infrared imager.

He and this year’s 18 other finalists were formally acknowledged at a gala ceremony at Walt Disney World in Florida.—Reported by Fred Strohl and Ron Walli