Researchers at Edinburgh University have pioneered software which instantly analyses the breakdown of complex chemical mixtures.
A security officer with a handheld device known as a Raman spectrometer can point a laser at a suspicious package or substance, which then measures reflected light and beams it to a computer, giving a reading.
The new software then translates this to give an accurate description of all the chemicals used.
Previous software was only able to identify a single chemical at a time.
Mike Davies, professor of signal and image processing at the university’s school of engineering, said that the technique was a “particularly powerful tool” which could be used to detect chemicals used in improvised explosives or for giving accurate analysis of substances used in counterfeit drugs.
“If you have a mixture of chemicals, both nasty and innocuous, the current software would not be able to identify all the components. In fact, it can only identify a single chemical.
“Our software can identify the entire nasty complex mixture and give an instant reading, whether it be every-day inflammable materials in improvised explosives, chemical warfare or examining counterfeit drugs to see if they are 100 per cent, diluted or mixed.
“These devices shine a light from a metre away and our software analysis gives the chemical composition of the material. In effect they do away with ‘wet chemistry’.”
Professor Davies’s team worked with the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) to develop the non-invasive technique which identifies chemicals from a large database.
The university’s commercialisation arm, Edinburgh Research & Innovation (ERI), now wants to license the new technology to industry partners who would like to use it for their commercial hardware.
Angus Stewart-Liddon, ERI’s licensing executive, said; “This software has the ability to transform portable chemical analysis capability in the field and give instant results to the composition of chemical mixtures.
“It adds exceptional functionality to a hand held spectroscopy device and its application, particularly for the security industry where rapid chemical analysis of potential hazardous materials, cannot be overestimated.”
Rhea Clewes, senior scientist in chemical sensing at DSTL, said: “This novel software will allow us to accurately identify small amounts of hazardous chemicals much more quickly than before. This technology agnostic development allows a range of different signals to be separated, including analytical approaches beyond Raman spectroscopy.
“DSTL is proud to see that ‘outcomes’ from the University Defence Research Collaboration in Signal Programming, jointly funded by DSTL and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, is producing output of immediate benefit to defence and homeland security.”