A TSA employee advises travelers that liquids are not allowed through the gate at at the Los Angeles International Airport. A new liquid scanner developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory may help ease airport security rules. Damian Dovarganes

Imagine a day when you could walk through airport security with that special bottle of chardonnay, French perfume or 12 ounces of shampoo in your carry-on.

A team of Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists is working to make that happen with their latest breakthrough. They’ve combined magnetic resonance with low-power X-rays that together can better distinguish between harmless liquids and those that could be used to make explosives.

“The goal and objective is to determine what’s in the bottle without having to open it,” said Michelle Espy, physicist and leader of the LANL team that’s developed the MagRay.

One day, the team’s work could mean airport security officers and travelers won’t have to worry about rules restricting personal care items to 3-ounce bottles all shoved into a single clear plastic bag. “No one wants to have the restrictions in place,” Espy said in a recent interview.

The MagRay is the next breakthrough in a machine the LANL team developed in 2008 that used magnetic resonance imaging alone to distinguish between dangerous and benign liquids.

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs, are used in hospitals to look at soft tissue for damage and disease.

The LANL team found their machine, called MagViz, was highly effective in determining whether the liquid in a soda can or a shampoo bottle, for instance, was something dangerous.

For their efforts, the MagViz team earned a spot on R&D Magazine’s top 100 research and development projects in 2009.

Now “MagRay is essentially MagViz plus x-ray,” Espy said. “MagViz was extremely good at certain types of liquids, but had trouble with a few like complex mixtures.”

Adding X-rays solved the problem.

“As it turns out, when you combine MR with X-ray, you end up with something far superior,” she said. When the team added X-rays, they could also see the proton content.

“We’re really pleased with how well it works,” said Espy. “We’ve been able to look at a really broad class of explosives, we’ve been able to look through all kinds of packaging, and we’ve unlocked a new parameter – proton content – that’s not available to either X-ray or MRI alone.”

The MagRay measures the density of protons and the activity of those protons to decipher the chemicals in the fluid. So it can distinguish between a bottle of white wine and a wine bottle that actually contains nitromethane for example, a clear liquid that could be used to make an explosive.

“We’re looking for where a liquid lies in a sort of three-dimensional space of MRI, proton content, and X-ray density,” said Larry Schultz, MagRay engineer, in a statement. “With those measures we find that benign liquids and threat liquids separate real nicely in this space, so we can detect them quickly with a very high level of confidence.”

The team tested the MagViz twice at the Albuquerque International Sunport on a wide range of products in 2008 and 2010. They hope to do the same with the MagRay.

So far, they’ve only demonstrated the MagRay at LANL. They picked 50 to 100 items from a database of commercial products. They ran bottles and cans of shampoos, wine, perfume, hair gels, children’s liquid Tylenol, soda and more through the machine. “We tried to cover the whole spectrum of medicine, food and personal products that people wanted to take on a plane,” Espy said.

Then they tested the machine on a variety of liquids on a “threat materials” list from the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, which has helped fund the team’s research.

Espy said the goal now is to make MagRay easy to use, small and fast. Eventually they want an operator at an airport to be able to scan bags and any other containers and have bottles show up as red or green on the screen: Red for dangerous and green for benign.

She said the machine also will need to be inexpensive. “It is not going to help if no airport can afford to use it,” she said.

In a new video, Espy and the MagRay team explain how the new technology works, how they’ve developed an easy operator interface, and what the next steps might be in transitioning this technology to the private sector. The video is available on the Los Alamos National Laboratory YouTube channel at

Contact Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

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