New laser technology can identify unknown white powders from safe distance

October 8, 2018, Heriot-Watt University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

White powders found at known or potential crime scenes present investigators and first responders with a dilemma. Touching the powders could be dangerous or compromise the evidence, and sending samples to a lab to be identified could take too long.

Now, scientists at Heriot-Watt University have proved the concept that white powders have a unique 'fingerprint' that allows them to be identified instantly, using portable .

Professor Derryck Reid and his team reported in Optics Express that they were able to identify 11 white powder samples using their system. No samples or disturbance of the powders were required, and they could be identified from up to one metre away.

Readily available, non-toxic powders like painkillers, nutritional supplements, stimulants and a simple sugar were selected for the experiment, although Professor Reid believes the identification system will prove most useful for a different set of substances.

Professor Derryck Reid said: "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.

"We made use of the concept that white powders have a colour 'fingerprint' that can be seen using a process known as .

"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.

"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 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."

Chromacity, which designs and manufactures ultrafast lasers in Heriot-Watt University's research park, has already miniaturised the laser system used in the experiment, meaning first responders and other users could have cutting edge laser technology in a package the size of a large briefcase.

Explore further: Detecting toxic hazards in a split second

More information: Luke Maidment et al. White powder identification using broadband coherent light in the molecular fingerprint region, Optics Express (2018). DOI: 10.1364/OE.26.025364

Related Stories

Detecting toxic hazards in a split second

July 4, 2014

A portable laser device is being developed at Heriot-Watt that can instantly identify chemical hazards, increasing the safety of emergency services and military personnel.

Technology extends shelf life of dairy exports

July 26, 2018

A suite of drying technology platforms developed by researchers at Monash University could help extend the shelf life of Australia's powdered dairy exports – including infant formula – while meeting stringent safety and ...

Fast, cheap and colorful 3-D printing

August 1, 2018

People are exploring the use of 3-D printing for wide-ranging applications, including manufacturing, medical devices, fashion and even food. But one of the most efficient forms of 3-D printing suffers from a major drawback: ...

First evaluation of new fingerprinting methods for ivory

November 2, 2015

Scientists from King's College London and University College London have collaborated with imaging and fingerprint experts from the Metropolitan Police to validate the use of new techniques for retrieving fingerprints from ...

Pictures of success in 3-D printing

July 27, 2018

Across the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, teams are tackling different scientific problems associated with additive manufacturing, often referred to as 3-D printing, so as to advance our understanding ...

Recommended for you

A quantum magnet with a topological twist

February 22, 2019

Taking their name from an intricate Japanese basket pattern, kagome magnets are thought to have electronic properties that could be valuable for future quantum devices and applications. Theories predict that some electrons ...

Sculpting stable structures in pure liquids

February 21, 2019

Oscillating flow and light pulses can be used to create reconfigurable architecture in liquid crystals. Materials scientists can carefully engineer concerted microfluidic flows and localized optothermal fields to achieve ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.