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Materials Make Us Safer



A Big Dream in the Small Box

    What strikes your eyes when you walk into Prof. Fang Yu’s office are the tall bookcases full of file boxes neatly arranged and labeled.

    “Don’t ever underestimate these file cases, for each of them is a story. Each project, each meeting and each plan, I would make a file. One by one and day after day, we have our SRED detector.” said Prof. Fang, smiling.

    The SRED detector is actually an “Electronic Dog Nose” for detecting explosives. It outperformed General Electricity’s Vapor Tracer when it made its debut on the market in March 2015, even beating the Fido-XT/NXT detector produced by MIT’s ICx Technologies.

    “It started from a simple idea when I first started on this project. The Electronic Dog Nose was successfully developed by Americans in 1997, but there was a vacancy in this area in China when I returned from my studies overseas in 1998. So I decided to do something.” Prof. Fang opened a file box and took out some documents, spreading them on the desk, “My team has been searching for better materials and more advanced technologies. The performance of the first batch of SRED detectors outdid my expectation. However, the process of research and development has been a story of hardships and difficulties.” 

    The documents exhibited by Prof. Fang were surprisingly detailed. Everything from research plans, conference agenda, to data and graphs, are all clearly recorded. These A4-sized papers are the testimony to their hard work.

    “During our research, we encountered many problems, for example we were short of research assistants and funds. The results were not favorable at first when we approached several companies in Shaanxi and Guangdong provinces, trying to find a partner to commercialize our research findings.” said Prof. Fang. “But I’m not a person who gives up in face of difficulties. What I do is find another way. I always believe there are more solutions than difficulties and a good mentality is the key to any solution.” Finally, in a 2013 meeting, he met and talked with representatives of Shenzhen Zhongwu Co., Ltd. And they reached an agreement to commercialize the project at the end of year.

    “This project is laden with the hard work and dream of many SNNU scientists and is a pioneer in the commercialization of SNNU research findings.” Prof. Fang exclaimed. More than a decade has passed now, nobody would bother to recount the hardships of the project, but all the memories were stored in the file cases. We can still feel the dreams and aspirations of these researchers when we open the case and read the documents.

Materials Make Us Safer

    “It's a wonder! Such a small device is so sensitive that it detected explosives within a couple of seconds! It has worked for more than seven hours in harsh cold environments and there were no false alarms.” These were words spoken by police and security officers on anti-terrorist missions in Fukang city of Xinjiang Autonomous Region after the first field test of SRED in Spring 2015. “The most amazing thing about it is that it sounds an alarm in our earphones and this makes us much safer at work.”

    It was a dusty smoggy day with the temperature dropping to over minus ten degrees centigrade when the field test was carried out. The officers checked nearly 1,000 vehicles and about 10,000 passengers on their routine mission. What made this mission different from the previous ones was that they carried a new device: the 0.82kg handy SRED explosive detector. They spotted a passenger suspected of carrying explosives and handed him to local police.

“The detector is so small, but it is much more sensitive than a trained police dog.” The officers were convinced by the performance of SRED.

    “The core of the detector is the chip inside it. The chip is as small as a fingernail, and we worked on it for ten years.” said Prof. Fang, “The chip is the heart of the device, which is inoperative without it. The chip uses a special sensing film manufactured with the fluorescent conjugate polymer monomolecular layer technology and that's why it can be made in such small size.”

    To make the device suitable for multiple environments, Prof. Fang's team also run field tests in the hot tropical Hainan Islands and in Tibet where the ultraviolet rays are the strongest in China. After the tests, they modified the sensing system, alarm system and even the design of plug.

    “Life is the most precious thing.” Prof. Fang said, “Science and technology work for people. The purpose of developing SRED is to safeguard people's safety. And we specially designed the wireless remote alarm to safeguard police and security officer's safety.”

    Surveys suggest that there are more than 50 million landmines planted in more than 80 countries, causing nearly 20,000 deaths and injuries each year. The X-ray detectors used at airports, railway stations and other transportation terminals do not have a good find for irregularly packed explosives. “I wanted to develop something really competitive after my return to China in 1998. I was not satisfied with the performance of the detectors available at the time. Imitation would not carry you far, so we must use special materials with new approaches to make something valuable.” said Prof. Fang, “Only when our products are competitive in international market can I begin to feel assured.”

    “This detector uses the most advanced technology and it can detect one explosive molecule in 100 billion molecules checked.” said Li Xiaopeng, technological manager of the team. No matter where a criminal or terrorist hides the explosives, in trucks, freight containers, passenger vehicles, electronic devices, notebook computers, or office appliances, SRED can spot it quickly and accurately.

    In addition to its wide use in the Xinjiang region, the Uganda government and some other African countries have also placed orders to purchase them. The security officers used SRED detectors when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Xi'an city in May 2015.

    A small device is so powerful and reliable that it is bringing reinforced safety to more people in the world.

Text by Yang Linshu, Feng Wei

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