By Rob Margetta, Congressional Quarterly | Nov. 19, 2008
Valley Forge Composite Technologies is betting that a nearly finished explosives detection system could be a game changer that gives the company a key position in the global and homeland security markets.
The THOR LVX Explosive Detection System was designed to identify explosives, nuclear and biochemical threats and drugs hidden in baggage and cargo containers by using short bursts of gamma rays.
Valley Forge CEO Lou Brothers said the system offers more in accuracy and sensitivity than any X-ray or particle detection product now on the market.
“One country said ‘Can you tell the difference between tobacco and marijuana?’ We said
not only that, we can tell you where the marijuana was grown,” Brothers said. He added
later that “We’ve never had a false positive.”
The system is a co-development between Kentucky-based Valley Forge, Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory and Moscow’s Lebedev Physical Institute. The company
said scientists at Lebedev originally created the technology that led to THOR, a small-scale particle accelerator, to search for landmines in Afghanistan.
In 2004, the Lebedev scientists were brought together with their American scientific and business partners under a nonproliferation project sponsored by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
THOR produces bursts of electron beams into containers. Any items containing carbon,
nitrogen or oxygen emit gamma radiation in response, and the machine measures the type
and amount of energy released to determine what’s inside.
This small photonuclear reaction not only allows THOR to identify the chemical
composition of any substance in a container, but also the quantity and location, according to Valley Forge.
Photonuclear reactions used to be the province of nuclear detection, Brothers said. But,
instead of starting them with plutonium or uranium, THOR measures the specific reactions that are created with carbon, oxygen and nitrogen.
“Everything out there is made of elements and every element has a photonuclear signature,” he said. The system can also be programmed for new signatures. Brothers said when the program started, peroxide was not on the list of substances that THOR would need to detect, until the Transportation Security Administration and others named it as an explosives risk.
Brothers said the system can penetrate any cargo container, but, because it uses only gamma ray pulses of about 20 milliseconds, does not present a safety hazard.
“We use less radiation to examine a cargo container than it takes to radiate food,” he said.
“We’re below background within minutes.”
Brothers said Valley Forge and its development partners are past the stage of solving
technical challenges with THOR. They now are evaluating its sensitivity and preparing to
apply for certification from the Department of Energy, required because of the system’s use of photonuclear reactions.
Once that comes through, Brothers said, “We are expecting some pretty significant offers, including the U.S. It’s the only technology that can really scan a cargo container and tell you what’s inside. It just changes everything.”
His company plans to move manufacturing plants to Idaho and Covington, Pa., in 2009, and plans on pitching THOR as a security solution for ports, airports, military bases, border crossing stations, and high-priority government buildings and facilities.
“I think there’s the real possibility that we could be the detection capability of a worldwide web of satellites and tracking and threat assessment,” he said. “It’s something that really changes the company. It’s just that dramatic.”
In addition to Lawrence Livermore and Lebedev, Valley Forge lists the United States
Industry Coalition and RPM2 Inc., a company based in New Delhi, India, among its
partners. The Department of Energy also provided a $1.85 million grant to speed the
technology’s development, the company said.
Valley Forge is promoting THOR alongside its entrant in the personnel screening market,
ODIN ULDRIS, which it plans to sell first in foreign markets. The company says the device can detect both metal and non-metal objects hidden on or in the human body.
“We’ve been getting calls from airports and seaports all over the world,” Brothers said.
“Valley Forge will soon become a key player in homeland security.”