Airports have spent millions installing the latest security gadgets, from industrial X-ray machines that peek inside checked luggage to full-body scanners that leave nothing to the imagination. But as the technology becomes more sophisticated, one crucial thing remains in short supply: fake bombs.
In order to test every advancement—and properly teach airport personnel how to use it—researchers need to replicate the chemical concoctions that terrorists may be hiding in their suitcases (or underwear). “The simulants must have the same combination of materials without being explosive: same atomic number, same density, same colour, sometimes even the same smell,” says Bruce Koffler, director of Securesearch Inc., a Canadian company that supplies replicas. “You can’t use live explosives in a classroom, especially the homemade types, because they can detonate without warning.”
The problem, though, is that the popularity of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has far outpaced the market on fakes. There are so many recipes—and new ones being devloped all the time—that it’s hard to know whether the latest X-ray will spot each variation. In response, the military’s research arm has launched an “X-Ray Simulant Project” and is looking for a contractor to deliver “rapid design and prototyping” of IED replicas. “The availability of suitable, non-hazardous, non-toxic, explosive simulants is of concern when assessing the potential utility of [explosive] detection systems,” the tender reads. “Lack of simulants limits the training opportunities, and ultimately the detection probability, of security personnel using systems in the field.”