Accurate Aerosol Identification—Really Fast

February 06, 2023

In 2022, the United States set a grim record with the deaths of over 110,000 Americans from drug overdoses—a record mainly attributed to the increase of illegal fentanyl. And for those who fentanyl hasn’t killed, it has led to addiction and destroyed lives and communities.

While addiction is a serious issue with various causes, easy access to fentanyl and other illicit drugs makes this a difficult and dangerous problem for US officials to manage. Indeed, fentanyl—a fine powder that is often pressed into pills—is so potent that police officers, drug enforcement officials, and EMTs regularly carry Narcan to reverse the effects of fentanyl to themselves, fellow officers, and even K-9s, which can quickly incapacitate and kill if just a small amount of powder is inhaled.

The US Government (USG) and Intelligence Community (IC) have expressed deep concern with this problem—especially with the large-scale manufacture and transport of fentanyl and other illicit drugs—and the need to find a way to safely mitigate this and other items that can convey harmful aerosols. Indeed, the USG and IC would ideally like to be able to detect a broad spectrum of aerosols before they can cause harm, however, this is not possible with today’s fielded technology. This is particularly true when it comes to a range of items, like chemical warfare agents (CWAs), pharmaceutical based agents (PBAs) such as fentanyl and its analogs, toxic industrial chemicals (TICs)/toxic industrial materials (TIMs), environmental pollutants, explosives, and radioactive materials—all of which can exist as aerosols in the environment.

For example, sulfur mustard, commonly referred to as mustard gas, is an aerosol of liquid droplets suspended in the air. The primary chemical in tear gas—CS, 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile—is an aerosol of fine white powder. Other dangerous compounds, including some emerging threats and their precursors, like xylazine and levamisole, can be readily delivered as aerosols whose rapid detection and characterization is beyond the current technological state of the art. Additionally, hazardous aerosols can be challenging to detect due to coinciding naturally occurring materials (such as pollen or dust), humidity, wind, and other environmental factors.

The bottom line is that right now it’s very difficult and potentially dangerous to identify harmful chemicals or agents once they’re aerosolized.

However, one of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity's (IARPA) newest programs, Pursuing Intelligent Complex Aerosols for Rapid Detection (PICARD), hopes to give the USG and IC a tool that will help reduce risk while accurately and quickly detecting harmful aerosols.

The PICARD program intends to do this by developing fieldable sensing platforms for the rapid chemical identification of aerosol particles. The program will address both point detection and standoff capabilities that focus on the complexity of aerosols with non-uniform sizes, forms and structures, chemical composition, and dispersion in challenging environments.

“With today’s technology, it’s a significant challenge to identify an individual target chemical in aerosols due to a number of issues, including chemical complexity, physical complexity, and diverse environmental factors,” said PICARD Program Manager, Dr. Sherrie Pilkington. “Having the ability to rapidly and accurately detect dangerous or harmful chemical aerosols will be a game-changer in terms of the USG and IC’s ability to mitigate chemical agent threats and protect its personnel and US citizens.”

The key objective of the PICARD program is not to create a sensor that can detect very low concentrations of chemicals in the laboratory, but rather to develop a fully integrated system that can identify target chemicals within aerosol particles at concentrations relevant to real-world environments. For example, PICARD technologies may be used for a number of tasks, including monitoring suspected drug manufacturing sites and helping to track drug shipments, providing an early warning for the intentional or accidental release of material from industrial and nuclear sites, and for screening of suspected chemicals/aerosols (explosives, CWAs, or other incapacitants) for early warning at large public gatherings. Biological threats, however, will be out of the scope of technology developed under PICARD.

When launched, the PICARD program is anticipated to be a 42-month effort, comprised of two phases. Phase 1 will be 18 months in duration, while Phase 2 will be 24 months. In each phase, technology will be developed along two tracks: point and standoff detection in increasingly complex environments.

While PICARD won’t officially launch until later in 2023—the Broad Agency Announcement was published November 18, 2022 and proposals were due on January 23, 2023—Dr. Pilkington is excited about the program’s prospects. “This is a difficult issue to solve, but it’s a problem I’m confident we’ll be able to address and, because lives and our nation’s security are depending on it, it’s a problem we really need to address,” Dr. Pilkington said.

Accurate Aerosol Identification—Really Fast Logo