White powder and syringes

Laser device shines light on suspicious white powders

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Scientists at Heriot-Watt University have developed a method for instantly identifying white powders, reading their ‘fingerprints’ using a laser device.

Finding mysterious white powders can be a cause for concern for investigators, not least because touching them can be dangerous and compromises evidence. This means that white powders at crime scenes are typically handled by experts wearing protective gear before a sample is sent to a laboratory for a lengthy testing process.

Scientists based at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University have offered a new method for identifying these powders which is safe and immediate, making use of a portable infrared laser device which can be operated from a safe distance. The device is no larger than a standard briefcase.

“The instant, accurate identification of white powders could be useful in a range of scenarios, such as detecting counterfeit pharmaceuticals, conducting foodstuff analysis or identifying hazardous material like explosive residue,” said Professor Derryck Reid, who led the research. “We made use of the concept that white powders have a colour fingerprint’ that can be seen using a process known as spectrometry.”

The chemical bonds between particles in the powders affect how they absorb light, resulting in a different spectrum when light of certain frequencies is directed at them and measured. These spectral fingerprints can be used to identify the chemicals within the powders.

According to their Optics Express report, Reid and his colleagues have successfully used their instrument to identify 11 different powder samples, such as ground painkillers and supplements, sugar and stimulants. The process did not disturb the powders and the device was operated effectively from up to one metre away.

“This has an obvious application for narcotics detection. We know that there is an appetite for portable crime-scene technology that can reduce the risks faced by personnel, while providing accurate and instant results,” Reid added.

The technology has been commercialised by a spin-out company, Chromacity, which will work to develop the technology into a marketable product.

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