Franklin & Marshall’s weekly online newsletter
Searching for Danger Underground
Tim Bechtel, visiting professor of geosciences
Tim Bechtel uses a holographic sensor to scan a test bed filled with inactive landmines and other objects.
It was the kind of e-mail Tim Bechtel wishes he would never receive. As the visiting professor of geosciences at Franklin & Marshall checked his messages one day in late February, he noticed one from his friend, Titus Peachy, director of peace education for Mennonite Central Committee. "Tragically, Titus wrote that five children in Laos had been killed by a cluster bomb on Feb. 22," Bechtel says.
However, the cluster bomb wasn't dropped from an airplane—at least not recently. The bomb was one of countless pieces of unexploded ordinance (UXO) buried in the ground in Laos and numerous other locations across the globe. UXO poses a serious danger to people, in many cases, decades after it is dropped.
For several years, Bechtel has been working with an international team of scientists to address the problem. The team has developed a holographic sensor that identifies buried landmines, and was recently selected as one of 27 groups to exhibit research at the Royal Society of London's 350th Anniversary Festival of Science.
"We were amazed that we were selected," Bechtel says. "We put in the application almost as a throw-away, because it's an extremely competitive pool of applicants."
Bechtel's group includes Sergey Ivashov, a Russian scientist who worked in the Soviet military during the 1980s and studied battlefield landmines in Afghanistan. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ivashov became part of the International Science and Technology Center, which connects scientists from the former U.S.S.R. with their peers in the United States and other countries.
Ivashov connected with Bechtel in 1999 through a member of the board of the School District of Lancaster who knew Ivashov. At the time, Bechtel was using radar to scan the walls of McCaskey East High School for structural problems. "So it all goes back to McCaskey East falling apart," Bechtel says with a smile.
An easily deployable sensor would save time, energy and money in de-mining operations across the globe, Bechtel says. "Over 90 percent of the items removed are clutter. Most money is spent on things we don't have to worry about, like soda cans and other trash. And the funding for humanitarian demining has been very poor since the death of Princess Diana [who championed the cause]."
Bechtel is leading a class this semester, Global Demining, to teach students about the scope of the problem. "The U.S. dropped millions of cluster bombs in Southeast Asia, and they're now de-facto landmines. They lie there for 30 or 40 years, waiting for a gardener to hit it with a hoe. This is a pollution problem, not because it's a nasty, green goo, but because of its immediate and dramatic negative effect on humans and animals."
In the William Hackman Physical Sciences Building, Bechtel's students search for inactive landmines in two test beds, one filled with sand and one filled with humus. They use the holographic sensor to identify the makeshift UXOs among soda cans and other clutter.
The sensor has practical uses for humanitarian purposes, Bechtel says. "The United Nations estimates that if there are no more wars, it will take 1,100 years to remove all landmines around the world. But if we don't stop, it may never end."