Chemistry student develops fast, easy, cheap explosives detection

FIU chemistry doctoral student Kelley Peters is revolutionizing on-site explosives detection techniques with a new, simple, fast and inexpensive technology for first responders.


In 2013, doctoral student Kelley Peters presented her work on the TEDxFIU stage.

Her research focuses on designing presumptive and confirmatory methods for the rapid analysis of multiple explosive compounds including black powder, smokeless powder and fertilizer-based explosives such as ammonium nitrate.

These types of explosives are used in terrorist attacks. However, the current methods of detection – canines and machines – can only detect if an explosive is present, not what type of explosive it is.

The paper microfluidic devices – or paper chips – Peters has developed are a simple and inexpensive way to identify exactly what type of explosive may be present at a particular crime scene.

A similar device has been used for basic medical diagnostics in third world countries where the actual medical equipment required for diagnostics is too expensive. Peters saw an opportunity to take this technology and, under the guidance of chemistry professor Bruce McCord, adapt it to use on explosives.

“Kelley is a bright and motivated student,” McCord said. “She has done a fantastic job developing the device and sensor array and has presented this work at a number of research forums.”

For Peters, the benefits of using this paper chip for explosives detection are clear.

“Training is very minimal.” Peters said. “You don’t have to be a specialist to be able to use these devices. We want to be able to train all personnel.”

Also, the equipment is light and portable and because they are using paper, wax and a minimal amount of chemical reagents to create it, the cost for each device is merely pennies.

“We hope that these devices will be able to be used by law enforcement and military personnel in order to keep them safer and in order for them to know what they are dealing with when they are on an explosives scene,” Peters said.

Originally from Allentown, Pa., Peters always had an interest in forensics, specifically the area of explosives. She began graduate school at FIU in 2010 under the mentorship of McCord and is on track to complete her doctoral degree by the fall semester. In 2013, she presented her work on the TEDxFIU stage.