Smart chemistry boosting border protection
Border protection may become simpler and smarter thanks to a new approach to drug and explosive detection being developed by organic chemist Associate Professor Adam McCluskey.
McCluskey and his team at the University of Newcastle’s Priority Research Centre for Organic Electronics are working on new chemical sensors that will literally ‘sniff’ out illicit drugs and explosives, and immediately alert authorities to their presence. The process should be quick, accurate and effective.
Currently, suspicious substances are subjected to multiple presumptive colour tests, involving combining each substance with a chemical to assess its danger. In cases involving more than one substance, the process is repeated multiple times.
In addition, initial field testing of suspect substances delivers high rates of false positive results. When these substances are subsequently tested in a laboratory, approximately 95 per cent return a negative result for drugs or explosives.
"The existing detection and testing technology is time- consuming, expensive and imprecise," McCluskey says.
"A positive match can only be made after exhaustive laboratory-based analysis. The custom-designed plastic chemical sensors are being developed to give authorities an immediate, accurate analysis of the substance."
McCluskey’s work makes use of the vapours emitted by drugs and explosives. With a built-in memory for chemical vapour, the sensors will be able to accurately detect and identify nearby illicit drugs and explosives on a person, in luggage or in cargo.
"Once developed, one of the strongest features of the sensors will be that no-one needs to know they are on site and operating, making this technology useful for covert intelligence gathering, as well as substance detection," he says.
McCluskey is working in partnership with the Australian Federal Police Forensic Services; and colleagues Professor Alison Jones, Associate Professor Paul Dastoor, Dr Clovia Holdsworth and Dr Michael Bowyer.