Bomb Tracers

           ON AUGUST 24, 1970, Richard Livesay was working as a chemist for 3M when a bomb gutted a physics building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was during the height of the Vietnam War, and the blast killed one student and injured two others. Livesay took it personally; he had worked at the University's physics lab to help pay his tuition back in the 1950s. He was enraged by the bombing, and Livesay spent the following year creating a microtracing element called taggants.

           A few years later, he left his job at 3M to form a company called Microtrace, Inc. And now, Microtrace stands to be a major beneficiary of the renewed anti-terrorism rhetoric that has followed the TWA explosion and the Olympic pipe bombing.

           The theory behind taggants is simple enough: They consist of small blast-proof particles, each batch uniquely color-coded and registered, which can then be placed in explosives or in materials used to make explosives. In turn, explosives makers would use Livesay's code to track distribution and point-of-purchase sale.

           In May 1971, Livesay and 3M were granted a patent for the taggants. Initial support for the product ran high. "The three big explosive manufacturers were very supportive of this project," he notes. But while federal agencies like the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms have never wavered in their advocacy, the explosives industry eventually retracted its support.

           It began with another bombing, a case in which a man was convicted of rigging a relative's truck to explode. The killer was unlucky enough to use an explosive that had been mixed with taggants at the government's behest for testing purposes; the materials he used were traced to a Dupont plant and then to him. While the case thrilled law enforcement, it made the explosives industry nervous. "They feared liability suits," Livesay says simply. As a result, in 1980 the industry joined forces with the NRA to oppose taggants, and the two organizations lobbied Congress. At that time, federal lawmakers had been considering a bill that would mandate the tagging of explosives. The NRA and the Institute of Manufacturers of Explosives complained that taggants were costly and "unsafe." They cited a study conducted by the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment. According to their interpretation, taggants "destabilize" explosives--particularly gunpowder--and could potentially harm commercial and recreational users. "Both of these claims are specious," counters Livesay. "The research does not support their conclusions." He claims the experiments used a drastically higher proportion of taggants material than necessary, and overheated it. Nonetheless, Congress caved and 3M lost interest in the project.

           But Livesay was not so easily deterred. In 1983, he quit 3M after acquiring the patent for his product and formed Microtrace, Inc. While Livesay's belief in taggants as a tool for law enforcement did not flag--the Swiss government has signed a contract with him for exactly such purposes--he had begun to consider more commercial uses for the tracers. According to William Kerns, vice president of sales and marketing for the Blaine-based Microtrace, the company successfully diversified. "You can identify just about anything," says Kerns. Taggants are placed in an array of products from hazardous waste to adhesives to floor coverings. Customers use taggants for theft protection, diversion (hijacking) tracking, and counterfeit detection.

           While Kerns declines to divulge the company's client list, he allows that Microtrace has contracts with private manufacturers, the government, and law enforcement agencies. He is similarly elusive about ownership and sales figures for the privately held company. But there's no doubt that increased attention to taggants as a result of recent anti-terrorism legislation could enhance the company's revenues dramatically. The Clinton administration has tried twice this year to pass legislation requiring the use of taggants in explosive materials; both times the provisions were defeated, largely due to the opposition of the NRA and the Institute of Makers of Explosives.

           Although the mandatory taggants provision was axed from the bill, lawmakers have nonetheless agreed to an independent study on the stability of microtracers. Should Livesay's product be vindicated, the company from which he recently retired figures to gain not only in reputation, but also in revenue since Microtrace is the only company in the United States licensed to tag explosives. While Kerns maintains that the 10-employee company can produce enough taggants for the study, he admits that if a bill were passed, the company would have to expand. However, he claims that there are no plans to take the company public. "We do, however, have a few parties interested in partnering," he says.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >