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New bomb-sniffing material developed by University of Utah engineers could better equip soldiers in combat, as well as airport security guards and police officers.

Scientists say the polymer they've created could make sensors faster and more accurate in detecting explosives, poisonous gases and illegal drugs. A $4.2 million study on the technology was published online Tuesday in the journal Advanced Materials.

The sensor works by changing its electrical current when it detects elements such as methamphetamine or one of a dozen toxic gases. The new material is similar to a super-thin film that can cut the devices' reading time from about 10 minutes to just a few seconds. And it can be placed on top of existing scanners without making them any heavier, says U. engineer Ling Zang.

That's important, he says, because "the defense and military people like something wearable or something they can put in the pocket," he said.

The Department of Homeland Security paid for the bulk of the project with $3 million. The National Science Foundation put about $1 million toward the research, and additional money came from NASA.

Zang's interest in the technology isn't purely scientific. As a researcher at New York City's Columbia University on Sept. 11, 2001, he saw the destruction wrought by terrorists firsthand.

"It's kind of my personal motivation to develop these kinds of things," he said.

The new polymers also could have another purpose, researchers say: fabric-like solar panels that can be rolled up or painted on clothing.

A spinoff from the U., Vaporsens, will begin selling a commercial version of the scanners in early 2015. But it's not yet clear how much they'll cost.