Jimmie C. Oxley is a fighter in the global war on terror. Her battlefield is a laboratory at the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston campus, where the chemistry professor says she and her team have invented a technology to neutralize a well-known threat to national security.
Triacetone triperoxide (TATP) made the news on Aug. 10, when airports in Britain and the United States went on high alert as security officials suspected terrorists in London were planning to use the chemical in bombs on jets bound for U.S. cities.
Journalists around the world called on Oxley as an expert source. What they didn’t report is that she doesn’t just know a great deal about TATP; in an interview with Providence Business News, Oxley said she and her team also have found a way to literally dissolve the explosive.
Known as the suicide bombers’ weapon of choice, TATP is a highly reactive substance that can easily be made, using instructions that are posted on the Internet. Its base ingredients – bleach, drain cleaner and acetone – are cheap and readily available, and the finished explosive is said to be almost undetectable by bomb-sniffing dogs and most other detection systems.
TATP is what Richard Reid allegedly used in his unsuccessful shoe bombing attempt in December 2001, and it is frequently used by Palestinian suicide bombers. But TATP is also so reactive, many bomb-makers reportedly have been killed by premature explosions.
Oxley’s team has developed a formula that she said can render TATP harmless. A drop of the “destruction” solution would be added, say, to a bottle of liquid laced with TATP to alter its explosive properties, she explained.
“Right now, when bomb squads pick up an [explosive] material, they usually blow it up in place because it is very hazardous to handle,” Oxley said. “We were looking for something that would just gently dissolve [TATP].”
The formula was developed over the last six months using a $375,944 grant awarded to Oxley by the federal Transportation Security Administration a year ago – two months after TATP was used in terrorist bombings in London’s subway system.
Oxley said she believes the new formula is patentable, and she has queried the TSA to determine whether the agency wants to pursue that path.
No formal plans have been reached for commercializing the substance or filing applications to gain patents, and Oxley indicated that she would like to develop her formula further before taking the next step. “It’s very close to done,” she said.
Because the dissolvent had not been publicized, industry experts were not familiar with the substance and its capabilities. They said, however, that Oxley’s reputation in the field of explosives gave them reason to believe the anti-TATP additive could be a major breakthrough.
“We are certainly trying to render the more exotic explosives [such as TATP] less risky to handle – and if we have a way to do that that proves effective in the field, than that is a major advance,” said Neal Langerman, a chemist and past chairman of the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Health and Safety in Washington, D.C.
Langerman called Oxley “the leading researcher of explosives in the world.” Still, he said, the dissolvent must undergo a peer-review process and field tests to prove its utility.
John Riendeau, defense industry manager for the R.I. Economic Development Corporation, said Oxley’s research is one of several examples of important homeland security and defense technologies being developed in Rhode Island with federal funding.
“I think this is extremely important,” he said. But this is just “another example of the Rhode Island talent that resides in our state that keeps us on the cutting edge.”
For instance, with an $856,000 homeland security grant, Smiths Detection-LiveWave of Newport is in the process of testing a surveillance system with digital video and wireless technology on Narragansett Bay. The project also has attracted about $450,000 in additional investment and services, said Riendeau, whose office worked with other agencies to help it get the federal grant.
On top of her own research, URI’s Oxley recently has been teaching teams of bomb-sniffing dogs in Rhode Island and from the State of New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority how to detect TATP.
A researcher of explosives since 1992, Oxley began her work at URI in 1995 with her husband and fellow chemistry professor Jim Smith. She is frequently quoted in national newspapers as an explosives expert, and she has made several appearances on national TV.
“She’s established herself as a national if not international expert in explosives,” Riendeau said. “People like Jimmie give [the state] tremendous value.”