Investigating one of society’s most powerful workhorses
On a cool evening last April, at exactly 8:01 p.m., the International Space Station traced a bright silver arc over Pullman. Inside, a small sensor scanned the air for hazardous vapors and relayed the data to flight controllers in Houston.
Meanwhile, 200 miles below in the Syrian desert, soldiers searched through rubble carrying a handheld device that sounds an alarm in the presence of chemical warfare agents. At airport security gates and customs stations all over the world, similar devices sniff out explosives and narcotics.
The technology behind those detectors is called ion mobility spectrometry or IMS. While it may be unfamiliar, IMS is emerging as one of society’s most powerful workhorses, able to detect and identify an extensive range of potentially harmful materials.
For the last 40 years, Washington State University chemistry professor Herbert Hill has led the development and expansion of ion mobility. Today IMS is poised to revolutionize the medical field as an ultrasensitive diagnostic tool. It is also the key component in a prototype breathalyzer able to detect marijuana and other drugs.