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Two unconventional tools help researchers detect buried land mines

laser bacteria landmines landmine
Jerryscuba / Creative Commons
A team of researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have developed an innovative new method for detecting buried land mines, and it combines two unconventional tools: lasers and fluorescent bacteria.

Civilians around the world are continually impacted by live land mines left over from wartime. Detecting the land mines is difficult and removing them is obviously dangerous. And every year, between 15,000 and 20,000 people are hurt or killed by the devices. As many as 110 million buried land mines have been laid in more than 70 countries since the 1960s, according to the United Nations. Millions are still buried and unexploded.

Over the past few years, a number of creative methods have emerged for detecting and detonating land mines, including Massoud Hassani’s windblown device and drone-based system called Mine Kafon.

The new Hebrew University method is inspired by the fact that soils collect trace amounts of explosive vapors that leak out of land mines. Detecting the vapors helps detect the land mine.

The researchers genetically engineered bacteria to give off a fluorescent signals when contacted by the explosive vapors. They then packed the bacteria into small beads and sprinkled them across the top layer of a test site that had land mines buried underneath. From a safe distance, they scanned the site with a laser and successfully detected the location of the land mines. A paper detailing the study was published last week in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

“Our field data show that engineered biosensors may be useful in a land mine detection system,” said Shimshon Belkin, who was in charge of engineering the bacteria.

However, he pointed out there were a few more obstacles ahead: “For this to be possible, several challenges need to be overcome, such as enhancing the sensitivity and stability of the sensor bacteria, improving scanning speeds to cover large areas, and making the scanning apparatus more compact so it can be used on board a light unmanned aircraft or drone.”

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