Commencement 2016: URI graduate student in chemical engineering works on sensor project to detect explosives used by terrorists

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KINGSTON, R.I., May 6, 2016—They hit it off right away. Otto Gregory, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Rhode Island, was looking for someone smart—and in it for the long haul. Zachary Caron, a chemistry whiz working in private industry, was eager to work on a project that could thwart terrorism.

Together, they’ve helped create a sensor that detects triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, the explosive terrorists used in the Brussels bombings, as well as the Paris attacks in November and the London bombings in 2005.

Caron, 24, of Scituate, will graduate with a master’s degree in chemical engineering in May after studying for two years with Gregory as part of the Sensors and Surface Technology Partnership.

“It’s awesome working on a project you know will do something for the greater good,” says Caron. “It’s incredibly fulfilling knowing that you’re helping protect innocent people. It makes me want to work even harder.”

The sensor is still in its preliminary stage, but Caron and Gregory hope to have a portable version by the end of April that they can test in different environments other than their laboratory in Kirk Hall. The ultimate goal is to find one molecule of an explosive in a billion molecules of air, says Caron.

Numbers were Caron’s first interest. He’d spend hours as a kid doing math problems while his friends were playing video games. Then he switched to English, writing short stories. Chemistry roared into his life as a junior at Scituate High School thanks to a great teacher, George Goodfellow.