With a $5.8 million contract, the Department of Homeland Security has called on Duke researchers to reinvent scanners, which could give security officers a better view of what's in your bag—down to the molecule. 

“An airport wants a device that can process thousands of bags—which could literally contain just about anything—each hour for less than $100,000," said Joel Greenberg, assistant research professor of electrical and computer engineering, in a news release. "That’s why airport security technology is so challenging.”

The technology Greenberg and Michael Gehm, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, are working to develop would let security agents tell not only the shape of luggages' contents, but also their molecular composition.

The Department of Homeland Security awarded the researchers the three-year contract to bring the advanced X-ray technology to the market, according to the news release. 

The pair is working on the contract alongside Amit Ashok, associate professor of optical sciences and of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Arizona, as well as Smiths Detection and Durham startup Quadridox, Inc.

The release notes that the project focuses on a "hybrid X-ray system that combines multi-view transmission with X-ray diffraction tomography."

The first part—multi-view transmission—forms a 3D image and is already in use with airport security systems. 

The second part—X-ray diffraction tomography—is what is new and unique about the researchers' approach. It only exists in lab prototypes, and was pioneered in 2012 by Greenberg and another Duke researcher, the release said. X-ray diffraction tomography takes in information from waves that rebound off an object to figure out what it is composed of, according to the release. 

In 2012, Greenberg and David Brady, Michael J. Fitzpatrick professor of photonics, began work on what became a working prototype. Now, the researchers are trying to move beyond the prototype phase and make the technology marketable, as they continue to make improvements to their original design and incorporate multi-view transmission technology. 

Greenberg said in the release that they are "kind of taking a step back in this project in hopes of taking several steps forward." They are reconsidering the system design and working to understand the "fundamental performance limits of such a hybrid system."

“We’ve spent the past five years developing a really high-performance X-ray simulation tool that allows us to probe many thousands of synthetic pieces of baggage to explore the performance of arbitrary systems,” Gehm said in the release. “We’ll be turning that simulation capability loose on the problem of finding the hardware configuration that provides the best hybrid transmission/diffraction approach.”