The Department of Homeland Security has selected the University of Rhode Island and Northeastern University to lead a research program on explosives detection, the federal agency announced on its Web site in a Feb. 26 news release.

In an additional development apparently unconnected to the announcement of the new research center, URI evacuated two of its buildings Monday afternoon after campus police were informed of an apparent bomb threat, the Providence Journal reported on its Web site Monday. The buildings were reopened after a state fire marshal bomb squad conducted a search of the areas, the Journal reported.

The URI team of the Center of Excellence for Explosives Detection, Mitigation and Response will be led by Jimmie Oxley, a professor of chemistry and an “internationally renowned expert in explosives,” according to a Feb. 26 statement released by URI.

Of primary concern to her team, Oxley told The Herald, will be improving detection of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

IEDs have been used since World War II, but the type employed by insurgents in Iraq today presents new challenges. As the U.S. military improved its detection of military-grade explosives, insurgents began to use homemade devices which the military doesn’t know much about, Oxley said.

Her team is investigating ways to improve several high-tech methods of detecting IEDs – including infrared sensors, devices that detect polymers commonly found in explosives, and ion mobility spectrometers, which are currently used in airports to screen carry-on baggage. She said she hopes to see her work employed in the near future and noted that DHS is “funding things quickly to solve problems as soon as possible.”

Oxley’s team, which will include about 50 URI students, will also work to improve transportation security through improved baggage screening and liquid explosive detection.

DHS will grant the university up to $2 million a year for four to six years. Established in 2002 to coordinate national security efforts against terrorism, the federal agency granted $44 million for fiscal year 2009 to universities around the country for research, according to ExpectMore.gov, a Web site maintained by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and other federal agencies.

Along with the URI-Northeastern collaboration, the agency established four other “centers of excellence” which will explore various aspects of national security, including border security, maritime and port security, natural disasters and emergency management security and transportation security, according to the DHS news release.

According to the URI press release, Oxley has extensive experience with explosives and has worked with several law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration and the British and Israeli governments.

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