There is an increasing need for detection tools which can keep up with the ever-evolving array of modern chemical threats. This has resulted in a considerable drive towards the development of new technology that can be used at the point of need by first responders, civilian support teams (CST) and the military to effectively detect and identify explosive and chemical threats.

US Senator Dianne Feinstein and Congressman Mike Rogers recently commented that the threat of terrorism is increasing in the US; recent events such as the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon remind us that this is indeed an issue close to home. Extremist groups continue to develop explosive devices that are increasingly hard to detect; often using techniques to disguise the technology, designing and engineering these dangerous threats to emit only trace amounts of vapour making them even more difficult to detect using existing technology. This calls attention to the imminent need to equip first responders with modern advanced analytical capabilities for varying levels of threat detection and to the task at hand for industry to help outsmart extremists across the nation.

Current Trends

Presently, there is a range of technology used to identify these threats including Raman spectroscopy, amplifying fluorescence polymer detection (AFP), Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) and FTIR spectroscopy. While, traditionally used in laboratories, the recent adoption of portable and handheld analysers that are rugged enough to meet military standards and reliable enough to be trusted in the field have had a significant impact on response time and detection capabilities. While these technologies fulfil their purposes, all have limitations and no single technique or approach can presently handle the wide range of chemical threats field personnel are faced with today.

Innovative Technology

The most effective miniaturized technologies are designed with the end user in mind also military, CST teams and first responders require devices that are sufficiently rugged to withstand extreme conditions, are easily portable, and able to identify a wide range of threats at trace levels, while providing detailed, actionable intelligence when it is needed most.

Until recently, one form of technology that has not been made available in a handheld form factor is mass spectrometry (MS). Commonly referred to as the “gold standard” technique for analytical testing, mass spectrometry has traditionally been confined to use in a laboratory because of the instruments’ size, expense and need to be operated and maintained by highly trained experts. The development of portable “luggable” mass spectrometry devices represented a significant step forward in bringing this powerful capability to the field; however present systems remain relatively fragile, expensive and complex to use.

Capable of differentiating between millions of different molecules and capable of detecting trace amounts to the part-per-billion level or better, mass spectrometry techniques have the potential to deliver dramatically improved forensic capabilities as they can be used to detect and identify a wide range of chemicals at the point of need.

Broadening Detection Capabilities

M908, developed by Boston, MA based 908 Devices, Inc., is the first and only handheld device utilizing high-pressure mass spectrometry™ (HPMS) to provide actionable results often within a few seconds. With an understanding of time-critical missions, M908 offers rapid clear down time allowing teams to move quickly from one measurement to the next and enabling the system to run in a continuous monitoring mode.

M908 has been optimized to detect and identify hundreds of high priority targets, at trace concentration levels, from amongst the multitude of background chemical signals that will also be present. The first responder, therefore, has an immediate and clear identification of priority threat presence without wasting valuable field time sorting through lists of irrelevant background chemicals that could also be detected.

When it comes to threat detection the issue of false positives readings represents a significant concern. Existing technologies such as IMS and AFP lack the selectivity to clearly discriminate between many target chemicals and are easily confused. These limitations mean such devices have a very limited target list and cannot simply expand to include new threats. Worse, they can cause devices relying on IMS or AFP to give false positive alarms in the presence of common interferents such as colognes and diesel fumes. Mass spectrometry by contrast is both extremely sensitive and selective so that it can detect the target compounds while ignoring other chemicals present in the background. Recent testing of M908 by MRIGlobal across a range of toxic industrial compounds and stimulants for chemical warfare agents concluded excellent detection confidence with extremely low occurrence of false positives due to the resistance to interference from background chemicals.

The M908 device itself weighs only 3.75 lbs. making it ten times smaller and lighter than any commercial mass spectrometry device and it operates on a single battery charge for the length of typical missions. Operating much closer to atmospheric pressures than conventional MS systems, M908 uses patented, micro-scale ion traps in a package designed for MilSpec ruggedness and reliability.


Recent events provide widespread recognition that the threat to society from homemade or government produced chemical and explosive agents is only increasing and the need for portable, reliable and accurate tools for chemical detection is greater than ever before. The powerful abilities of cutting-edge handheld mass spectrometry devices can add greater detection capabilities at the point of need and provide instant situational awareness for faster resolution. New devices, such as the M908, are advancing rapidly in order to meet the demand of modern day threats.