Smoke detectors

Technology designed for use by astro-chemists to study space could be adapted to detect the presence of cannabis or other drugs on a person’s breath.

Researchers at Keele University are working with Staffordshire Police on a project that aims to develop a instant, portable drug testing system.

The SIFT-MS analysis technology was developed by Prof David Smith from the university’s Institute of Science and Technology for Medicine in the 1970s to study how molecules form between stars. Smith and his team have formed a spin-out company, Trans Spectra, to market the devices.

Existing breath analysis tools mean that the sample must be collected in a bag and then processed which can take several minutes. ‘The point of SIFT-MS is that you simply blow into the instrument and the analysis is instant,’ said Smith.

The system consists of a tube through which helium gas is pumped. Charged ions in an electrical microwave discharge are injected into the flowing gas, and flow through the tube until they reach the mass spectrometer at the end. This analyses what ions are present based on their weight. As a breath sample is introduced, the ions react with the trace chemicals present in the breath and produce characteristic ions which the mass spectrometer can measure.

The system has already been adapted for use as a breath analysis tool to diagnose in real-time problems such as renal disease or cancer. It allows a number of diseases to be identified as each disease means that different elements are present in the breath in different quantities. For example, a lung tumour would show an increased presence of formaldehyde.

The new cannabis research will prove to be a particularly difficult application for the system, said Smith, as there are so many elements present in the drug.

In association with the university’s Addiction Psychiatry department the project has received Home Office approval to import specially made cannabis cigarettes from Canada for use in clinical trials of the technology.

At the moment only extremely small quantities of the drug have been made available for analysis from Staffordshire Police. Sgt Jim Mills has been working alongside the research team on the project, and is certain that a real-time screening device for drugs would be a valuable tool in policing.

‘At the moment we do not have a screening device for drivers who we suspect are under the influence of drugs. Current tests are subjective and rely on the experience and training of officers. An instant screening device like this would be an extremely useful tool in supporting road safety and cutting traffic accidents,’ said Mills.

As The Engineer reported last year, the Home Office is actively seeking technical solutions that would allow a so-called ‘drugalyser’ to be available to police across the UK (28 November, 2005).

Smith is confident that a great deal of progress will be made on the project this year, and Trans Spectra is beginning to develop smaller, more portable devices than existing lab-based analysis tools.

‘It is going to be big once we get going over the next year,’ he said. ‘Whether we are testing for cannabis or for other drugs, it is a very new, exciting area of work.’