Tuskegee research team spends summer in Puerto Rico improving homeland security

Jonathan Mbah & Kiara Moorer

Assistant professor Jonathan Mbah and recent graduate, student Kiara Moorer, both of Tuskegee University, conducted research at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez as part of the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security’s 2012 Summer Research Team Program for Minority Serving Institutions. Their goal was to improve the detection of explosive materials to help counteract terrorist threats and lessen the risk of detonation of explosive compounds in unrecovered land mines and environmental contamination spills.

Kiara Moorer spent her summer wrapped in sundresses and waves. And a lab coat. Together with her assistant professor from Tuskegee University Jonathan Mbah, a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, Moorer conducted research at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, or UPRM, focused on improving the detection of explosive materials. The student-faculty team served as participants in the 10-week U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Summer Research Team Program for Minority-Serving Institutions administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

The DHS program is designed to increase and enhance the scientific leadership at minority serving institutions in research areas that support the mission and goals of DHS. UPRM is part of the DHS Center of Excellence for Awareness & Location of Explosives-Related Threats, or ALERT. As one of 12 DHS Science & Technology Directorate Centers of Excellence, ALERT conducts transformational research, technology and educational development for effective response to explosives-related threats.

A recent Tuskegee graduate in chemical engineering, Moorer participated alongside Mbah in developing and testing materials to improve detection of the nitroaromatic explosives 2,4 Dinitrotoluene, or DNT and 2,4,6-Trinitrotoluene, also known as TNT. These compounds can be lurking with a high-risk of detonation in unrecovered land mines or environmental contamination spills, risking the lives of the military or cleanup crews. Mbah said there is also the risk of terrorists using these compounds to poison the drinking water or other water system. “Because the compounds are very slightly insoluble in water we are trying to develop the method in such a way that we could detect them in trace quantities.”

In the lab the team fused silver with a manufactured carbon-fiber sheet. Mbah explained the team deposited silver nanoparticles onto the carbon surface to “reliably control” the surface characteristics of that sheet. They knew that silver could be recognized by two methods: surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy, or SERS, and cyclic voltammetry, or CV used to detect nitroaromatic materials.  Essentially, the silver on the sheet served as a control group. By depositing a tiny drop of DNT onto the sheet, they hoped SERS and CV would provide results separate from those collected with the silver alone, helping indicate the presence of a nitroaromatic material.    

The team was satisfied with their preliminary results, which suggested that greater concentrations of silver lead to enhanced detection of DNT. Mbah said the next phase is to optimize the detection system so that it can be used by the DHS and other agencies. “I would like to see it implemented in areas facing the challenges of terrorism,” he said.

Mbah said the entire lab group was very supportive, in addition to Moorer. “Kiara has been very active and responsive,” said Mbah, who had Moorer as a student in two of his undergraduate classes at Tuskegee. At the lab the two met daily to lay out agendas and objectives. “Even when things don’t go well in the experiment, you can encourage one another to guess new ways of doing things in order to achieve the results you want,” she said.

When the program ended in August 2012, Moorer planned to pursue opportunities in an industry setting as a full-time chemical engineer. Mbah envisioned using his experience as a springboard to establish his own “center of excellence” at Tuskegee.

For the summer, though, Moorer spent her free time sightseeing, shopping, socializing, and speaking broken Spanish with goals to improve. Aside from Puerto Rico’s custards, jewelry and affordable movie tickets, she considered using the lab equipment her favorite part of the program. Her professor loved the technologies, too. The excitement rose in Mbah’s voice as he said, “I went on the weekends and played with Raman spectroscopy!”