Anthrax. A dirty nuclear bomb. Sarin gas.
They are some of the most frightening weapons in the age of terrorism.
But if you are unfortunate enough to be in a place where a terrorist is trying to commit mass murder using those or other chemical and biological weapons, you might remain blissfully unaware and perfectly safe, thanks to technology invented and sold world-wide by a small company in Monroe.
At Research International, whose clients include military and government agencies in places like China and Russia, Elrich Saaski and his wife Leonie, as well as a staff of about 20, make their life’s work inventing technology to save the lives of innocents in the world’s nastiest wars.
Tech against terror
Research International houses, on one side, a small but robust art gallery, including in large part works from the Saaski’s extensive personal collection.
But one can’t just walk in. Rather, there is a bell to ring, whereupon someone will unlock the gallery. Getting into the other side of the building isn’t as easy. Cameras and recording devices are forbidden, and one signs in and out as one would visiting a prison.
But once inside, in a greeting room in which candy dishes dominate the center table, a counter is lined with devices ranging in size from small coffee cans to medium suitcases.
Many have a faintly military appearance; olive drab or beige camouflage, and one looks like a boxy white computer printer.
But each one has the capacity to save the lives of thousands.
That is because each is equipped with tiny filters or air collection devices that can detect extremely small amounts of extremely bad things.
The science behind each device is a bit arcane. But Elrich Saaski, whose playful sense of humor belies his formidable engineering a chemical abilities, tries his best to break the technology down to layman’s terms.
“This works like a Swiffer mop,” he explains, holding up the silver dollar-sized filter that snaps over the air intake on the smallest coffee-can shaped device.
It looks like a Swiffer, too, a papery, thick disk of shiny white fiber. And like a Swiffer, it carries a charge that attracts particles, and in fact is about 50 times more efficient than other filters commonly in use.
It’s sturdy enough for a Star Trek mission; runs on two D cell batteries, lasts 10 years, and functions in arctic cold and near-Martian heat.
A device that looks like a printer also opens like a printer, and a cartage slides obligingly to the front. Air is drawn in and “assayed,” or tested, in tiny channels in a little snap-in cassette in which the particles in the air come in contact with different chemical solutions that reveal the presence of bio-agents.
Across the room, set room-width apart, is a book-end like pair of devices much like a bank’s laser alarm system, the fodder of many a spy thriller, in which safe-crackers make their way across a minefield of laser beams that raise an alarm if the beams are interrupted.
This operates on the same sort of principal, but it detects not the interruptions of people, but gases.
The beam that passes between the two sensors can detect the infrared signatures of a host of horrible things, as far as 50 meters from the source.
An informational sheet on the product, called an Oracle Non-Contacting Gas detector, shows it mounted high in a subway tunnel.
The presence of such a device could have saved the lives of more than a dozen people in Japan, had it been invented in time to detect the sarin gas that a religious group released in a Tokyo subway tunnel in 1995, killing 13 and severely injuring 50 others.
These devices were all developed and produced by Monroe’s Research International, and they are in place keeping people safe from chemical and biological weapons all over the world.
A curious career
Elrich Saaski’s career path didn’t lead straight from college to counterterrorism. Rather, it took some colorful turns, some of which the inventor and engineer remembers with some rueful humor.
After getting an undergrad degree in nuclear engineering and a masters in chemical engineering, he found himself working at a research lab in the Tri Cities in south central Washington.
On the wall of his Monroe office is a picture of the Alaskan oil pipeline, the site of his first major invention.
“If you look on the Alaskan Pipeline, and see the radiators sticking out, I designed those,” he said. “There’s 200,000 of them on the pipeline. They keep it from sinking into the permafrost.”
An Alaskan janitor working in the building had noticed the work the lab was trying to do for thermal control on spacecraft and declared that such a thing could keep cabins from sinking where he was from, and Saaski developed it.
Alas, he didn’t have the patent, however, so he never reaped the undoubtedly handsome financial rewards of his product.
Shortly thereafter, the lab, devoted to “the friendly use of the atom,” collided with the times and lost. It was the late 1960s and early 1970s, and any use of the atom was out of favor with the public. That was too bad for Saaski, he’d helped develop some cool nuclear batteries, one of which could have found use in pacemakers.
“It was safe…well, there was enough plutonium in one of to kill all of Seattle,” Saaski said, dismissing the potential catastrophe with a smile. “But it was a well-designed capsule. It could last 30 years.”
It was not to be, so he partnered to form his first company with an astronomer friend, and they developed some satellite thermal control technology in use on as many as half of all satellites today.
Saaski, once again, didn’t have the patent, and another fortune was lost.
After that, Saaski got into medical technology, and invented a fiber optic technology that is an industry standard today, and is used in 20,000 brain surgeries per year. Corning Glass found out about it, bought 49 percent of the company, and three years later Saaski had had enough of both the business and the horribly hot summers of the Tri Cities and decamped for the coast.
Eleven years ago, the Saaskis found a home in Monroe, just as a new line of work began to emerge.
Saaski can’t remember exactly how it happened, but the Naval Research Lab got interested in the Saaskis’ fiber optic innovations and started hiring Research International to make them products.
“We did many things with bio-detection with them and we became aware of other thing the government was interested in doing in that area,” said Saaski.
He and his company found a niche in counterterrorism, which he said frankly is “one of the most cutthroat businesses there is.”
But by then, at least Saaski was holding the patents on his own innovations; today he’s got more than 20.
After 9/11, counterterrorism boomed, but unfortunately a lot of money got wasted, said Saaski.
“The government threw billions at things that had a low probability of ever working,” he said. “Over time, those technologies have failed and the number of us still in the business has greatly reduced.”
There really aren’t many immediate threats in the United States, which also cooled the market.
And there are huge companies the provide most of what the US government needs. Those companies aren’t necessarily interested in providing for the more modest needs of countries such as the United Arab Emirates.
But there are many small countries around the world, where threats are high and needs are immediate.
So it is in selling technology overseas that Research International has found a niche.
Detecting the enemy
It’s a troubled world, and no one knows better than the researchers and developers at Research International.
“In Russia, there’s an explosion per calendar quarter, and someone dies mysteriously,” said Saaski. “In China the ethnic Uighurs and others are unhappy, and Beijing is worried that people will blow up the subways. South Korea is worried about North Korea. India and Pakistan can’t seem to become friends, and of course, there’s Israel. And Turkey is only moderately peaceful. We’ve done things in Abu Dhabi, and I was scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia last week, but I couldn’t get my visa because of the MERS epidemic.”
Around the world, countries and large corporations are in too much turmoil or threatened by too many hostile neighbors to wait for long bureaucratic processes to get a bioterrorism detector into their airports or mail rooms.
So the Saaskis, including Leonie, who has become expert in US laws regarding the sale of such technologies abroad, have been hard at work providing for those clients.
The back rooms of Research International are huge, packed with machinery and lab equipment, as well as movie studio-grade lab-coated scientists.
There are machines that injection-mold parts. Others perform nearly microscopic etching on tiny surfaces for sensors. There is a small but immensely powerful scanning electron microscope, and a machine that can heat substances like copper to the point it can literally be sprayed like ink onto delicate metal surfaces.
And one can’t develop sensors to detect nasty substances without testing them to see if they work; there are areas where dead spores of lethal things or live spores of similar but non-harmful things are used to troubleshoot devices, and when needed, they get little bits of radioactive stuff from the government to make sure nuclear device testers can pick up even tiny levels of radiation.
In once place, a ceiling-tall device that looks like nothing so much as a giant, label-free Red Bull can, silently conceals a sophisticated whirling intake fan that constantly samples the air. In an airport, it would look like a duct pipe, perhaps, and wouldn’t stand out, but it has a means of circulating air to get samples from throughout even the largest rooms.
Camouflage back-pack mounted devices can be carried by soldiers on patrol.
And Research International also makes equipment for mail rooms. Big international banks get about an envelope of white powder per week from enraged people, and they are almost always hoaxes. But it would only take one real one to wreak havoc on banking systems. And in fact the only time that one of their devices did actually detect ricin, it was in the United States Department of Justice last year. It was actually a trace amount; the ricin attack had been sent to the White House and to Congress, but the Department of Justice shares their mail room.
“It was 1/10,000th of the amount it would take to harm someone,” said Saaski. “But still, we caught it.”
The devices aren’t cheap, but they won’t break a national budget, either; a small coffee-can sized unit costs in the neighborhood of $5,000, and a large telescope-legged device runs about $150,000.
For the most part, the United States is content to allow companies like Research International supply counterterrorism technology to other countries.
But there are exceptions. Suddenly, for example, Research International’s permit to sell things to Russia has been indefinitely suspended.
Saaski accepts that with much the same humor as any of the other crimps on his career.
He never anticipated that his business would wind up so closely related to international politics.
But he and Leonie are enjoying the adventure.
And there is satisfaction in knowing that, regardless of the politics of conflict, the technology coming from Research International is designed to protect people from some of the most horrific substances on earth..
“All our stuff is defensive,” said Elrich. “We don’t do offensive things.”