Advanced sensors that can detect illegal drugs and chemical weapons in seconds are being developed by scientists at Queen’s University Belfast.
The devices will use special gel pads to swipe an individual or crime scene to gather a sample. The sample will then be analysed by a scanning instrument that can detect the presence of chemicals within seconds. The research team hopes this will allow better, faster decisions to be made in response to terrorist threats or suspected cases of drug consumption.
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. The Queen’s University team claims it is so sophisticated it can measure particles of a miniscule scale making detection faster and more accurate.
This type of spectroscopy is not normally sensitive enough to detect low concentrations of chemicals, so the researchers mixed the sample with nanoscale silver particles to amplify the signals of compounds and allow smaller traces to be detected.
Researcher Steven Bell said his group is now preparing to produce an integrated sensor device.
‘For the future, we hope to be able to capitalise on this research and expand the range of chemicals and drugs that these sensors are able to detect,’ he added.
It is hoped the new sensors will also be the basis for developing breathalyser instruments that could be used for roadside drugs testing in much the same way as the police take breathalyser samples to detect alcohol.
At present, police officers are only able to use a Field Impairment Test to determine if a person is driving under the influence of drugs. The accuracy of this method has been questioned because of concerns that it is easy to cheat.
Senior staff members from FSNI (Forensic Science Northern Ireland) are helping the Queen’s University researchers with the operational aspects of the technology and giving feedback on how it might be used in practice by the wider community.
Bell said the technology could have a number of important applications in the future. ‘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 added.