In a world of tanks and fighter jets, chemical hazard detection devices aren't exactly high profile. But nothing brings them into the light like a sarin gas attack.
Officials at Smiths Detection, which makes detectors locally and overseas that are small enough to take into the field, said they have spotted the firm's units used in Syria as international peacekeepers search for more details about attacks that killed civilians in the war-torn country.
"We can't get into, really, specifics of who has our systems or how they're used because of the proprietary nature, but there have been photos that I've seen and others have seen with our LCDs in the hands of U.N. weapons inspectors," said Aaron M. Gagnon, Smiths Detection's director of product management for chemical, biological, trace explosives and radiation protection systems.
The LCD — lightweight chemical detector — is manufactured in England. Smiths' complex in the Harford County community of Edgewood makes a similar unit exclusively for the U.S. military.
The company said it has sold tens of thousands of the two types of units over the years, and more than half a million chemical detection devices all told.
The United Nations, which confirmed that sarin was used near Damascus in August, said Friday that it is investigating more alleged incidents. It referred questions about the detection devices it uses to the Netherlands-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which also is involved in the Syria investigation. That group did not respond to inquiries.
Sarin, originally intended as a pesticide, is a man-made and very lethal nerve agent that can kill within minutes. It was banned as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty in force since 1997.
Hundreds of companies make chemical hazard monitoring and detection equipment, but about 15 control the bulk of the market, according to analyst Srinivasa Rajaram with BCC Research, a technology market-research firm.
Smiths Detection is "one of the big kahunas" in that niche, said Wayne Plucker, aerospace and defense industry manager at Frost & Sullivan, a market intelligence research company.
Chemicals have taken a bit of a back seat in the world of detection in recent years — at least domestically — because so much attention and money flowed to equipment capable of detecting improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
Then came Syria. That could make a difference for a detection market that is, not surprisingly, "very events-driven," Plucker said.
He doesn't expect a surge of research and development because sarin — the bulk of the Syrian government's reported stockpile of chemical agents — isn't new. Where he sees a possible ripple effect is countries and organizations buying more of the existing detectors.
"Some of the chemical detection equipment, like the chemicals themselves, doesn't age well," Plucker said. "I could easily envision some refreshment."
He estimated the annual U.S. market for chemical detection devices at about $150 million to $200 million, with about the same level of spending spread across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Smiths Detection's Edgewood facility, which employs nearly 230 people and also makes gear such as X-ray inspection equipment, expanded last year to manage U.S. demand for chemical detectors. The Army's latest order, for $7 million of the devices, came in July.
Not all chemical-detector customers are militaries and weapons inspectors. Some first responders take the devices to the sites of industrial accidents and other chemical spills.
And the devices themselves don't all run on the same technology. Smiths Detection uses ion mobility spectrometry — a technique airports rely on to sniff out explosives.
The company's device, about the size of a paperback novel, can be strapped to a belt or held in the hand. Smiths describes its units as the chemical equivalent of the FBI's fingerprint database because they look for a variety of nerve agents, blood agents and toxic industrial chemicals — and set off an alarm if anything comes up as a match.
What exactly the device can detect is "highly classified," said Smiths' Gagnon. But sarin, he's willing to acknowledge, is on the list.