Explosives detection by swabbing for improvised explosive devices

James Michael Edward Glackin, Ross Neil Gillanders, Frans Eriksson, Marcus Fjällgren, Joachim Engblom, Salam Mohammed, Ifor David William Samuel, Graham Turnbull

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)
9 Downloads (Pure)


Swabs taken from the surface of a suspicious object are a standard method of identifying a concealed explosive device in security-conscious locations like airports. In this paper we demonstrate a sensitive method to collect and detect trace explosive residues from improvised explosive devices using swabs and an optical sensor element. Swabs coated with a commercial fluoropolymer are used to collect material and are subsequently heated to thermally desorb the explosives, causing the quenching of light emission from a thin film luminescent sensor. We report the sorption and desorption characteristics of swabs loaded with 2,4-DNT tested with Super Yellow fluorescence sensors in a laboratory setting, with detection that is up to three orders of magnitude more sensitive than standard colorimetric tests. The method was then applied in field tests with raw military-grade explosives TNT, PETN and RDX, on various objects containing the explosives, and post-blast craters. We show for the first time results using organic semiconductors to detect sub-milligram amounts of explosive sorbed onto a substrate from real explosives in the field, giving a promising new approach for IED detection.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages8
Early online date5 Oct 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 5 Oct 2020


  • Nitroaromatic
  • Organic semiconductor
  • Luminescence quenching
  • Fluoropolymer
  • Optical sensing
  • Super Yellow


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