New nanotechnology tagging system to help solve gun crime

August 1, 2008

Criminals who use firearms may find it much harder to evade justice in future, thanks to an ingenious new bullet tagging technology developed in the UK.

The tiny tags – just 30 microns in diameter and invisible to the naked eye – are designed to be coated onto gun cartridges. They then attach themselves to the hands or gloves of anyone handling the cartridge and are very difficult to wash off completely.

Crucially, some of these 'nanotags' also remain on the cartridge even after it has been fired. This should make it possible to establish a robust forensic link between a cartridge fired during a crime and whoever handled it.

To date it has been extremely hard to establish such a link because of the difficulty in retrieving fingerprints or significant amounts of DNA from cartridge surfaces, which are shiny and smooth. The nanotags, which are quite unlike anything previously used in the fight against gun crime, could therefore lead to a significant increase in successful convictions.

This breakthrough has been achieved by a team of chemists, engineers, management scientists, sociologists and nanotechnologists from Brighton, Brunel, Cranfield, Surrey and York Universities, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

"The tags primarily consist of naturally-occurring pollen, a substance that evolution has provided with extraordinary adhesive properties," says Professor Paul Sermon from the University of Surrey, who has led the research. "It has been given a unique chemical signature by coating it with titanium oxide, zirconia, silica or a mixture of other oxides. The precise composition of this coating can be varied subtly from one batch of cartridges to another, enabling a firm connection to be made between a particular fired cartridge and its user."

In addition to this breakthrough, the team has also developed a method of trapping forensically-useful amounts of DNA on gun cartridges. It involves increasing the abrasive character of the cartridge case with micro-patterned pyramid textures, or adding an abrasive grit, held in place by a thin layer of resin, to the cartridge base. This rough surface is able to retain dead skin cells from a thumb as it loads a cartridge into a firearm.

A key benefit is also the affordability – a cost-effective way of reliably capturing sufficient DNA from a gun cartridge has never been available before. The technology has been designed to avoid damage to the DNA captured which is caused (i) by temperatures generated as the gun is fired, when heat is rapidly transferred from the burning propellant into the cartridge case and (ii) when copper is extracted from the cartridge case by lactic acid in sweat.

The nanotag and DNA capture technologies could potentially be available for use within as little as 12 months. There may also be scope to apply them in other fields, such as knife crime, in future.

"We're currently focusing on understanding the precise requirements of the police and cartridge manufacturers," comments Professor Sermon. "But our work clearly could make a valuable contribution not only to solving gun crime but also to deterring criminals from resorting to the use of firearms in the first place."

Provided by University of Surrey

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3.6 / 5 (9) Aug 01, 2008
"There may also be scope to apply them in other fields, such as knife crime, in future."

and checks to fight check fraud,
and bottles to fight underage drinking,
and CD's to fight music piracy...

But seriously I doubt that this will do that much good for ammo other than add a whole new level of cost and complexity to our criminal justice and legal systems. The detection of tags will be used as evidence to convict a few innocent individuals, and the absence of tags will be used to acquit a few guilty individuals. The evidence "knife" cuts both ways.

There may be other applications that make more sense. I could see this used in a similar manner that dye packs are used today to mark bank robbers and their stolen money. This could possibly work to protect valuables that chemical dyes would destroy (fine art, rare stamps, etc.)
5 / 5 (1) Aug 01, 2008
The only real problem is they are going to have to have a unique identifier for EACH individual bullet, less it be relagated to the pile of circumstantial evidence. Plus, it is ridiculously difficult to characterize, let alone find, a 30 um speck of something that is attached to someones hand. Of course, I don't know how gestapo-ish the uk is becoming, so they very well might require you to sit still for hours on end while they find a speck. Of course, if they have a special solvent, organized crime will find out about it and make it a standard practice to hide their tracks. Also, if you ever perform target practice, you will have a rather large quantitiy of various different types of markers on your hands, likely creating all kinds of problems for forensics.

Plus, reloads don't have these trackers, so they are still immune (my bet on what criminals with brains will use, of course that's not most criminals, so it might be moot).

The big difference between die packs and this is that they are applying this to each "batch" of bullets, therby possibly catching ~40 different people (assuming a batch is a case of ammo), not just the one person who is foolish enough to be carrying the bag when it explodes.
3 / 5 (3) Aug 01, 2008
I'm sure they are fantastic when you end up inhaling them. Super sticky synthetic 30um tags, I'm thinking asbestos on steroids.

The gun nuts have been freaked about this for a while, with some merit. There's a LOT of regular ammo out there that will need to be taken out of circulation, and these tags are expected to increase ammunition prices significantly. Plus, criminals are good at getting around these types of things.
1.5 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2008
For a criminal who uses a semi-automatic weapon and leaves spent shell casings at the crime scene, this has a possibility of working.

For the criminal who uses a revolver it makes no sense at all. No spent shell casing = no evidence.

Bottom Line: The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)'s monies were wasted and criminals will all get revolvers. End of Story!
1 / 5 (1) Aug 01, 2008
It will probably take one guy with a microscope and some free time to figure out what solvent to use to get rid of those tags and the information will become available on the net (if it isn't already).

Great tool for framing innocent people though, rub your hands with enough ammo and then shake hands with unsuspecting victim.

It could earn manufacturers and ammo smugglers quite a lot of cash but I seriously doubt it will be effective in fighting crime.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2008
How does this protect the unarmed citizens of the UK from the armed government?
3.5 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2008
Wow I was going to mention that 20 years ago there was a push to mix identifiable plastic markers with explosives, some of which would survive detonation as measure to track explosives used in terrorist attacks. The NRA gun lobby got this killed since explosives are used in bullets.

I see from the comments that gun lobby is alive screaming still from the comments above.

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