The end of one of the most frustrating things about travelling by air, the ban on liquids above 100ml in hand luggage, is finally in sight, thanks to new technology that can “look” inside opaque containers and determine what is inside without opening them.

The end of the ban has been touted a number of times since the regulations were introduced in 2006, with several liquid explosive detection systems developed in response to the terrorism threat. Most of these use sophisticated X-ray technology, such as the devices by Kromek and Smiths Detection. But the new system, developed by Cobalt Light Systems uses a technology called Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS).

This works by shining a laser at a container to chemically analyse the contents. The chemical data is returned and cross-checked against a database of explosives. The system is able to identify explosives inside opaque bottles, such as coloured plastic shampoo bottles or green glass wine bottles, in less than five seconds. It has recently been tested and exceeds the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) standard for use at airports and is now being trialled at several European airports.

The device looks set to be introduced as early as next year following a recent announcement from the European Commission allowing the relaxation of the ban next year. The end of the requirement to needlessly throw away bottles of water and struggle with zip lock bags full of underarm deodorant will no doubt be met with scenes of celebration in all European airports.

The next challenge for engineers please – devise a way for the people of Europe to listen to their iPods during take-off and landing!

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