Women Studies 320

4. Technology

One of Harris’s most well-known accomplishments is her development of a test that allows explosives to be identified in a field environment. She created the spot test while working for Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1993. It could detect whether the soil contained contaminants, such as lead, mercury, uranium, or other energetic materials, such as trinitrotoluene (TNT). The test is conducted by first obtaining soil samples from several different areas, a sanitary outflow, a “bum pit”,  a pentaerythritol tetranitrate, or PETN (the most common explosive found in detonators)  production outflow field, an active firing chamber, an inactive firing chamber and a leach field. Scientists use a technique called “dispersive X-ray fluorescence” that bombards the soil with X-ray waves. This is effective because if explosive material is present, then the waves will cause the material to release photons, or energy. This energy is detectable and helps to identify the presence of absence of explosives. The test also involves using different “reagents”, specifically reagent A, B, and C. When added to the soil, each reagent would turn a specific color if there was a positive result for explosive material. For example, Reagent A would turn a purple to black color in response to the presence of TNT. (McRae, Haywood, Powell, and Harris, 1993). The importance of this field test goes beyond just looking for particular metals in soil, however, there are health factors to consider.

Although explosive materials in soil are not directly fatal, they are still dangerous and it is very important to be able to identify them so that the area can be cleaned. If consumed or absorbed into the skin in high enough quantities, the materials could act as carcinogens (cancer causing agents), teratogens (which can be toxic to reproductive organs and/or fetuses), and also mutagens (which cause mutations in your DNA). (McRae, 1993).

An outdated chemistry lab available to African Americans. copyright Vintage Photos, 2012.



These are the chemical structures of the metals detected in soil samples. Specific reagents are able to react with them because they react with the chemical composition of their structure.

c Los Alamos National Laboratory, 1993

Table III shows the concentrations of certain metals found in soil samples. The metals include Nickel, Mercury, Lead and Uranium.  This particular sample shows normal amounts of these elements in the sample.

c Los Alamos National Laboratory, 1993

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