SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (AP) – In cluttered labs in the University of Rhode Island’s chemistry department, Jimmie Oxley and her students are lighting fires, mixing chemicals, and trying to see what they can and can’t blow up.

And the government not only knows about it – it’s paying them to do it.

In an effort to stay one step ahead of would-be terrorist bombers, the federal government awarded the university a grant to study better ways to sniff out traces of an explosive substance, protect household chemicals from being converted into bombs and strengthen buildings to lessen the devastation of an exploding bomb.

The new initiative, called the Center of Excellence for Explosives Detection, Mitigation and Response, is intended to equip federal investigators with additional tools to thwart would-be terrorist bombers.

Oxley and scientists at Northeastern University in Boston, which is co-directing the new center, have received $5.15 million from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to run experiments in three main areas of research: making blasts less damaging by upgrading building materials, taking the bite out of common, commercial ingredients that people use to make bombs at home, and improving ways to detect homemade bombs and bomb-makers.

“Improving instruments at airports (is something) that most people will think of,” Oxley said. “But there’s lots of different ways to go about that.”

Take, for instance, vapors and particle detection.

“You can walk into a room and say somebody’s been smoking. You’re doing that based on an odor that’s left behind,” Oxley said.

“But you can also do it based on particles. If it’s a smoker’s office, you can bet you’re going to have yellow stuff on the desk. So there’s the particle detection,” she added.

The center is one of 12 across the country, each with its own specialty, that the federal government has funded to tackle ways to keep Americans safe.

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