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.
“He applied everything to real life,” says Caron. “That made it much more interesting.”
Caron went on to Emmanuel College in Boston, graduating with a degree in chemistry in 2013. He soon landed a job as an analytic chemist at Fuji Film Electronics in North Kingstown, ensuring that chemicals and solutions meet company standards.
Chats with co-workers connected him to Gregory. Many of Caron’s colleagues at work suggested he do what they had done: pursue a master’s degree with the URI professor. The two met in the summer of 2014. “We built a nice connection reminiscing about his former students—now my colleagues at Fuji,” says Caron.
Caron was hooked when Gregory told him that he was working on a sensor to detect explosives.
Gregory has been working on the project for the last decade. Terrorists are using TATP because it is easy to make with chemicals that can be bought at pharmacies and hardware stores, attracting little attention from authorities. Only small amounts are needed to cause large explosions.
The sensor is designed to continuously detect vapors emitted by the explosive. It causes the TATP molecule to decompose, which emits heat, or vapors, that are then detected. The sensor also detects nitrogen-based and peroxide-based explosives.
And it works continuously, unlike bomb-sniffing dogs that can get tired and need breaks.
“This feature makes the sensor more attractive to be used in high-traffic areas like airports, train stations and ports,” says Caron. “It’s unique, and we hope to get this on the market in the next couple years.”
The next step is to reduce the sensor’s size, possibly making it as small as a cell phone or credit card. Caron, who has been working part-time at Fuji while earning his master’s, hopes to continue his sensor work in industry after he graduates.
“It’s been a great experience working with Dr. Gregory,” says Caron. “I was so fortunate to be a part of research that will make big changes in the world.”
URI Photo by Nora Lewis