November 28, 2001
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Berkeley Lab Offers Homeland Security Expertise
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BERKELEY, CA   BERKELEY, CA. - Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have offered their expertise and program experience to the nation's leaders who are charged with strengthening homeland security and countering terrorist activities.

Berkeley Lab recently took information on three projects to DOE headquarters in Washington to brief Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. They were part of an exhibition of more than two dozen counter-terrorism technologies sponsored by the DOE.

"Department of Energy laboratories are making real contributions to the homeland defense of our country," Abraham said. "Our world-class scientific and engineering facilities and creative researchers have helped make our nation more secure for over 50 years. These same resources have been trained on the threats posed by terrorism for some time, and because of this foresight, technologies such as these are in deployment today."

Berkeley Lab Director Charles Shank agreed. "As an Office of Science laboratory, we've been involved in cutting-edge research in a variety of disciplines for many decades. In response to national needs, these special capabilities can be put to immediate and practical use while at the same time expanding the frontiers of science. The strength of our country depends upon our technical achievements."

The Berkeley demonstrations included:

The Compact Neutron Source: This portable device uses neutrons to non-invasively screen the contents of things like baggage, air cargo, and mail. Unique in its speed and intensity, the neutron source is ideal for both spot checks and continuous scanning of large sizes and volumes of closed containers, to detect potentially dangerous contents such as explosives or fissionable materials. The power of this source, a thousand times greater than existing devices, will allow the detection of smaller objects, faster screening, and more accurate discrimination among materials.

Unlike radioactive sources used in existing devices, the compact neutron source uses electricity and can be switched on and off to tailor the neutron pulse to a particular application. The low-energy neutron beams strike objects or substances and, based upon the gamma rays and neutrons that are emitted from the atomic interactions, analysts can quickly determine the composition of the contents. Neutrons can penetrate walls, yet they leave the targeted objects undisturbed.

An initial prototype of the device will be completed within three months; 5-10 systems can be deployed in the field within nine months. Accelerator physicist Ka-Ngo Leung is the principal investigator.

Building Occupant Protection Guide: Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division has applied its experience in indoor air quality and building ventilation research to create a simple kit for use by occupants and first responders at a building site that may have been attacked using chemical and biological agents. The easy-to-use informational booklet, assembled by a team headed by environmental researcher Ashok Gadgil, explains how contamination spreads through office buildings, so that rescue workers can take steps to minimize the impact of the contamination and mitigate exposures.

The data can at a glance help responders, building owners, managers and occupants determine where the greatest exposure is most likely to occur and where the contamination is likely to spread over time. This work resulted from both extensive simulations and experiments to verify the simulations. Additional work has been done on methods to quickly analyze and report sensor data to provide information on where such materials are released so that proper response actions can be taken.
A draft guide is complete and ready for focus group review. Production and deployment can follow rapidly.

Rapid DNA Sequencing of Microbial Pathogens: The DOE's Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in Walnut Creek, CA — a collaboration led by scientists from national laboratories at Berkeley, Livermore and Los Alamos — has been a leader in the international effort to interpret and understand the human genome. The expertise there can be applied to biothreat bacteria, so that detection, identification and treatment can be improved.

JGI's special contribution has been rapid cost-effective sequencing, or de-coding, of DNA, the genetic blueprint of organisms. This same principal has been applied to various microbes, which can be sequenced in one to three days. Developing a complete DNA sequence catalogue of potential microbial pathogens would provide key information to identify particular bacterial strains, differentiate between closely related infectious and non-infectious bacteria, identify unique "signature" genes for rapid detection, and aid in forensic identification of the strain and potential source of origin.

In addition, the understanding gained will be extremely valuable to researchers and agencies for developing medical treatments for illness due to specific biothreat agents.

Sequencing and analysis of biothreat pathogens could begin within three weeks. The JGI has more than 90 advanced sequencing machines, robotic instrumentation, computational resources, and a staff of nearly 300 with 24-hour sequencing capability.

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