Ulster scientists develop sensors for chemical agents

New technology to help in the fight against the threat of terrorist attacks by detecting chemical weapons in seconds is being developed in Belfast. Scientists at Queen's University announced they are well advanced in developing new sensors to detect chemical agents.

The new devices will use special gel pads to swipe an individual or crime scene to gather a sample which is then analysed by a scanning instrument that can detect the presence of chemicals within seconds.

This will allow better, faster decisions to be made in response to terrorist threats, said the university. It is hoped the same sensors will also form the basis for new 'breathalyser' type instruments to enable police to carry out roadside drugs testing in much the same way they detect alcohol.

The scanning instrument will use Raman Spectroscopy which involves shining a laser beam onto the suspected sample and measuring the energy of light that scatters from it to determine what chemical compound is present.

Queen's said it was so sophisticated it could measure particles of a minuscule scale, making detection faster and more accurate. Normally such spectroscopy is not sensitive enough to detect low concentrations of chemicals but the Belfast researchers have come up with a way of mixing a sample with nanoscale silver particles which they say amplify the signals of compounds, allowing even the smallest trace to be detected. 

Dr Steven Bell, from the university's School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, who is leading the research, said: "Although we are still in the middle of the project we have finished much of the preliminary work and are now at the exciting stage where we put the various strands together to produce the integrated sensor device.

"For the future, we hope to be able to capitalise on this research and expand the range of chemicals and drugs which these sensors are able to detect."

Development of new roadside drug testing equipment is also hoped to flow from the new sensors. At present police are only able to use a field impairment test to determine if a person is driving under the influence of drugs - but the accuracy of the method has been questioned because of concerns that it is easy to cheat.

To ensure the technology is relevant, senior staff from Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI) will give significant input into the operational aspects of the technology and give feedback as to how it might be used in practice by the wider user community.

Stan Brown, chief executive of FSNI, said: "We consider the work being carried out by researchers at Queen's University to be extremely important and potentially very useful in driving forward the effectiveness, efficiency and speed of forensic science practice.

"The combination of leading edge research and hands-on experience of FSNI's practitioners has already proven very fruitful and is likely to lead to significant developments in forensic methodologies across a range of specialisms."

According to Dr Bell there could also be important and much wider uses for the technology. "There are numerous areas, from medical diagnostics to environmental monitoring, where the ability to use simple field tests to detect traces of important indicator compounds would be invaluable," he said.

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