Edinburgh university makes laser technology breakthrough

credit to Copyright Walter Baxter.jpg

Picture of Heriot Watt University, where the laser discovery was made. Photo by Walter Baxter ©

Edinburgh’s own Heriot Watt University has uncovered a way to identify suspicious white powder samples using a laser.

It can be hard for investigators to discern between legitimate substances such as icing sugar or supplements and illegal substance such as narcotics or even a chemical weapon.

Physically handling an unknown white powder when they appear in unexpected places can be very dangerous and potentially destroy the evidence.

Professor Derryck Reid and his team have now proven the theory that white powders have a unique fingerprint invisible to the naked eye. The laser technology developed by the team of scientists allows for the substances to be identified instantly and at a safe distance.

Reid explained the theory: “We made use of the concept that white powders have a colour ‘fingerprint’ that can be seen using a process known as spectrometry.

“The powders have different chemical bonds and this affects how they absorb light. By analysing the contrast between the infrared light we beam at the powders, compared to what colours come back, we can identify individual chemicals and compounds.

“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.”

The technology can be used further in more extreme scenarios such as crime scene investigations and even in the threat of chemical warfare.

Reid said: “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.

“The laser technology has recently been commercialised by Heriot-Watt spinout company Chromacity Ltd, so it’s now a short step to develop a directory of powder fingerprints that would allow users to quickly identify the powder that’s in front of them, without delay or danger.”

The technology is said to be the size of a briefcase, making it convenient for emergency services to utilise in crime scenes.

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