C&EN a publication by the American Chemical Society of which i was formerly a member of recently published an article on their website about the explosive used in the Brussels and Paris bombings called TriAcetoneTriPeroxide or TATP, the article entitled “Explosive used in Brussels isn’t hard to detect” looks at methods for detecting the explosive compound. The science of the article is sound and the methods presented would identify the explosives but they do not address the issues with identifying this explosive in any scenario where it has been used.
First in order to get a positive identification you need to obtain a sample. Obtaining a sample is not a simple task. TATP is a molecule looking for a reason to come apart at the seams. This would require training for every baggage screener in every airport in how not to blow yourself up while testing a mysterious white powder. Given that the TSA is a bureaucracy and that bureaucracies are notoriously slow and inefficient this may be too much to ask from a government apparatus.
Additionally you would need to recognize the explosive before screeners have access to the bomb given that detonation would be most effective while the bomb is in the crowded security line as the attack in Brussels demonstrated. So simply waiting for screeners to be able to identify the substance is probably waiting too long which leaves us with the problem of how to identify the problem earlier without simply moving the security zone further out because every checkpoint becomes a target point for a future attack. So I ask of the scientific community to not think of this as a problem solved by current methods but to challenge yourselves with finding a way to get rid of the problems with modern screening methods find a way to detect the explosive without ever handling the container. This is not the time to res on our laurels of already having a way to detect the explosive if the detection can only come when it is too late, push the boundaries of analytical chemistry a bit further create new instruments and help solve the problem.
Gif from C&EN Frontpage showing the results of 15g of TATP in a mailbox.