By Dr Eric Moore, Director Taught Postgraduate Courses Analytical Chemistry, Chemistry Department, University College Cork and Scientific Lead for GIFT
Article was originally published in CBRN Forensics issue 1. Full publication can be view here
Tyndall National Institute, University College Cork in Ireland has several roles within the GIFT consortium. As the scientific lead for the consortium, one of my main roles in the GIFT project is to ensure that the science and technology being developed is on track and aligned to the objectives of the project.
Obviously this is vitally important generally, but in terms of the GIFT project it is essential that we can demonstrate proof of principle, as our final forensic toolbox will successfully provide the teams who are making decisions on the ground at a CBRN forensic scene, with all the information they need.
The aim of the GIFT consortium is to develop a gold standard for CBRN forensics, through technology, protocols and procedures and make the processes at the scene quicker and more efficient.
Tyndall leads work package 6 (WP6), the toolbox part, to make sure all the technology is integrated and ultimately works together.
The institute is creating new knowledge that will contribute to the overall forensic toolbox with a particular focus on the integration of sensors and detectors to provide real time information on chemical analysis. These technologies will also contribute to new methods to ensure the safety, security and chain of custody for that data throughout the process. We are also working with partners on an information hub. This will facilitate best practice in terms of operating procedures and protocols, so that everyone across Europe can tackle a CBRN forensic scene in the same way.
GIFT will be creating the toolbox with all the elements for detection, analysis and information, which will enable anyone at the scene to make informed decisions about key actions to take or how to approach the scene. It’s about having the right information at the right time.
We are developing specialised sensors and detectors for CBRN forensics and the idea is that the software element of the toolbox will be able to connect with both existing technology and the new technologies being developed within the GIFT project.
It is expected that existing and future CBRN forensic teams will see the GIFT toolbox as a fundamental part of their kit. It augments what they have already, provides an easier way of doing risk assessment, suggests future capability roadmaps and also acts as a starting basis for newcomers that might want to understand how to sample efficiently. It also needs to be flexible enough to connect with future technologies.
We are mixing past, current and future generation capabilities to create a flexible and adaptable CBRN forensics toolbox. It is not meant to be a static delivery; it will evolve over time as current databases are augmented with new information. We are going to prove the value of a truly integrated system. This is not about reinventing the wheel but truly doing something important for forensic scientists.
Our project team at Tyndall is helping to increase the efficiency of response, to make the process quicker. The information provided by analysis of the sensors and detectors will mean that people understand what they are dealing with faster and can take appropriate action quicker. The protocols and guidance from the information hub will inform people how and when to deal with the situation, for example, what personal protective equipment (PPE) to wear and how to treat those exposed.
For all data going into the toolbox, every element will be logged, date-stamped and only accessible by those who require it, supporting the chain of custody for all potential court case evidence.
The Tyndall National Institute also has key competences that specialise in creating miniaturised systems for a wide variety of end users. I am the Principal Investigator of the Sensing and Separation group, we focus on miniaturised integrated sensing for the end user. We are using that technology and sensors expertise in WP3 to explore ways of improve CBRN forensics at the crime scene.
We will be developing a new chemical sensor for detecting nerve agents in liquid form. The instruments currently used for onsite chemical speciation do not have sufficient sensitivity or resolving power, or both, and therefore have a very high false alarm rate or are too selective and only detect a certain family of compounds. Such instruments include ion mobility spectrometers, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, photo-ionisation detection and flame photometric detection.
There is a need for complementary technologies that can be used for onsite detection of chemicals that enable preliminary testing to be done at the crime scene:
- Micro total analysis system (μTAS) devices that will enable flow through miniaturized capillary electrophoresis (CE).
- Chemical sensors that can be used to provide a chemical profile in the development of a robust and extendible portable sensing platform.
- Molecular sensors for the disclosure of chemical agents on surfaces.
- Associated software for all the sensing technologies.
We have been developing a custom-made capability by integrating a commercially available contactless conductivity detector (C4D), a printed circuit board (PCB), copper sensing electrodes and a hybrid polydimethylsiloxane/glass microchip. The microchip sits on the PCB and four platinum electrodes are located into four wells. This microchip system is being developed to helpwith the detection of chemical agents and so far we have been testing it on organophosphate nerve agents. We have already had promising results testing the prototype and will be validating it at the GIFT exercise in March 2017.
At present we are focused on nerve agents as our proof of concept targets with other project teams in GIFT doing likewise, but there is no reason why this couldn’t be expanded out to other chemicals of interest in the future.
The big advantage of our system is that it can all be contained within a wheeled suitcase. Its battery operated so it can be easily used out in the field. This is the first time a portable capillary electrophoresis (CE) system has been available to do chemical analysis in the field and it enables scientists to bring their lab to the crime scene – this is a key focus for the GIFT consortium and for the forensic toolbox in general.