Radiation can be found in many forms, from nuclear warheads to crates of bananas. Some forms are life-threatening, while others are not. It's distinguishing between the two that makes any handheld chemical or radiation detector worthwhile, said Patrick Doty, a principal member of the technical staff at the Sandia National Laboratories, the research arm of the Department of Energy.

“There are completely innocent radioactive materials in commerce,” Doty said. “Anything with potassium in it will be detected as radioactive, like fruits. One of the things that really sets detectors off is people, so if you had a nuclear medicine treatment you will be radioactive. A chemical detector needs to be able to tell the difference.”

As a result, detectors need to be able to recognize multiple chemicals to decipher real threats from common elements, Doty said. Such technologies currently on the market include a device from Smiths Detection. The HazMatID Ranger is a portable chemical identifier specially designed for diverse field operations for those hazmat personnel tasked with identifying unknown solids or liquids when they arrive at an incident scene.

The HazMatID Ranger is based on the company's HazMatID system, a field-based solid and liquid identifier used by military and civil responders around the world. The system was adapted to increase its portability, said Erin Gagnon, associate director of project management for the company. Designed for handheld, backpack or robot portability, it weighs 6.5 pounds and can fit inside protective gear. It is capable of Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy analysis by touching the diamond sensor tip to a sample. FTIR spectroscopy is a well-established analytical technique for the identification of unknown chemicals, Gagnon said.

The method relies on the microscopic interaction of infrared light with chemical matter through a process of absorption. This results in a pattern of bands called a spectrum, which is unique to the chemical and acts like a “molecular fingerprint” in the same way a human's fingerprint is distinct to each individual.

“Each chemical has a molecular fingerprint, whether it be sugar, baking soda or some dangerous chemical,” Gagnon said. “So what we do is we store all the different elements of chemicals into a database integrated into [the device], run the analysis on the chemical, compare it to the database and get an identification.”

Up to 33,000 materials can be identified by the device, which combines a chemical detector with off-the-shelf PDA technology. In a real-life scenario, a hazmat team can send responders into an incident. One responder is tasked with gathering the chemical data that then can be transmitted via Bluetooth to another responder who is offsite in a safe zone, Gagnon explained. It also has a Wi-Fi connection so users can take the data sent to the PDA and wirelessly transmit it to a laptop at the command-and-control center. The device is encased so it can be submerged in a bucket of bleach for up to 30 minutes and decontaminated after use, said Gagnon. It also can withstand dust and can sustain a 30-inch drop. However, it is still being tested and doesn't yet meet military standards for ruggedness.

Gagnon noted that the device also comes with ReachBack technical assistance to aid responders with spectral interpretation in the field. If a customer runs into an unrecognizable material, data can be sent to the technical team of chemists who interpret the information and provide feedback to field workers.

Each unit starts at $45,000.