Keeping the Skies Safe with Analytical Chemistry

Ever since events such as 9/11, the Lockerbie bombing and the (fortunately) failed shoe bomber, the stringency of airport security has been ever increasing. Anyone who has passed through an airport has no doubt witnessed the occasional swabbing of luggage or electronic items. The staff will take a quick swab of the item, stick it into a mysterious machine and usually send the passenger on their way with little explanation of what has just occurred.

But what exactly are they testing for in this scenario, and just what is the instrument they’re using?

As one might expect, the biggest target of this security step is explosive substances as a counter-terrorism measure, in addition to illicit narcotics in an attempt to crack down on drug trafficking. In an airport setting, the analytical testing technique of choice is ion mobility spectrometry.

Ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) is an analytical technique used to identify chemical compounds based on the differences in the movement of ions under an electric field. The concept for the technique was established in the early twentieth century, however it was not until the 1970s that the instrumentation was actually properly developed. There are currently tens of thousands of IMS devices deployed around the world. Not only are they utilised in airports for drug and explosives screening, but also by the military for the detection of chemical warfare agents and in industrial settings to monitor air quality. The range of applications is potentially vast, but the principles of operation are the same.

As you may have witnessed, a small swab is rubbed over the surface to be tested, typically a piece of luggage or an electronic device such as a laptop, before being inserted into the ion mobility spectrometer. As the sample needs to be introduced in its gaseous form, the swab may be subjected to heating in order to thermally desorb analytes from the swab and allow them to be transported into the instrument for analysis. In order to manipulate the analytes entering the instrument, they must first be converted into ions, their charged form. Ionisation is typically achieved using a radioactive source, such as 63Ni (nickel-63) or 241Am (Americium-241), which first form reactant ion species from the carrier gas (usually air), which then leads to the ionisation of the sample material. These newly-formed ions will then enter a region under an electric field and drift towards a series of electrodes. The ions will pass through the drift region at different speeds depending on the shape and size of the ion clusters and strike the electrodes, the signals being amplified and detected. Depending on the instrument and needs of the analysis, either positive or negative ions will be produced (in some cases both simultaneously).


IMS schematic. Source: Smiths Detection (

The IMS utilised in airports will typically hold a database of known explosive and narcotic substances against which to compare samples. There will be a certain threshold, typically based on peak intensity, that must be reached before a positive identification will be indicated, and if there is a “match”, the operator will be alerted to a potential identification.

In comparison to other analytical tools available, ion mobility spectrometers are far from being the best. For instance mass spectrometry, an alternative technique for the analysis and identification of chemical compounds, can offer greater sensitivity, higher resolution, improved accuracy and better identification. So why use IMS? It essentially comes down to cost and ease of use. The simple design and ability to operate at atmospheric pressure means the instruments can be fairly small in size, some even being hand-held and so rendering them completely portable. They have low power consumption, so can simply be powered by a few AA batteries. The ease of use of the IMS means anyone can be trained to use the instrument, thus technical or scientific expertise is not required.

But what is perhaps most important for use in an airport setting with potentially thousands of passengers each hour, is the ability to conduct analyses quickly, and this is something that the IMS can offer. Many commercial ion mobility-based instruments can provide results in a matter of seconds. For instance, the IONSCAN by Barringer (now owned by Smiths Detection) boasts the ability to detect over 40 explosives and narcotics in just 8 seconds.

In a security setting there are three primary types of IMS that may be encountered. The smallest of the devices are handheld and sample by drawing in analytes present in the atmosphere. These may be used to analyse potential hazards relating to unattended baggage, for example. The second type, which is perhaps the most commonly encountered IMS in airports, is a benchtop instrument which requires introduction of the sample via some type of swab. And finally, some airport security units may utilise a larger, human-sized IMS portal. This setup uses airflow to dislodge particles of explosives or drugs from clothing or the passenger’s body and analyse them.

Unsurprisingly, the instruments are not infallible, and false positive or negative results are a possibility. Some ions will have the same drift time so may be indistinguishable from known explosives or drugs, triggering an alarm. In actual fact this response may simply have been caused by a cosmetic or pharmaceutical product that happens to produce a response similar to a known narcotic. On the contrary, dirt, oil and other contaminants may mask the presence of substances of interest, thus causing no alert despite the presence of a drug or explosive.

Furthermore, the IMS is somewhat limited in that it can only identify the presence of a compound contained within its database. So whereas it may be able to detect common explosives such as RDX, TNT and PETN, and frequently encountered narcotics such as cocaine, heroin and cannabis, it would not necessarily alert to the presence of an unknown compound (unless it was very similar in chemical structure to something in the database).

Fortunately research in the field of analytical chemistry is constantly ongoing, aiming to improve instrumentation and analytical techniques to resolve these issues and ultimately produce more reliable and robust security measures.



G. Ewing et al. A critical review of ion mobility spectrometry for the detection of explosive and explosive related compounds. Talanta. 54 (2001) 515-529.

Homeland Security Science & Technology. IMS-Based Trace Explosives Detectors for First Responders. [online] Available:

Smiths Detection. Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS). [online] Available:

Sex Determination with Raman Spectroscopy

Sex Determination with Raman Spectroscopy

The ability to quickly identify a victim or suspect during a criminal investigation is crucial, and the use of fingerprinting and DNA profiling often proves invaluable in this. However, a fingerprint or DNA profile can only be associated with an individual if there is an alternative profile or database match for comparison.

But what can investigators do when comparison profiles are not available, rendering biological fluids found at crime scenes somewhat useless?

The capability of instantly establishing alternative information relating to a suspect – such as sex, age or a phenotypic characteristic – based on the analysis of the evidence could be a substantial benefit to an investigation.

In recent years, the use of both well-established and novel analytical techniques to ascertain information relating to a suspect or victim from bodily fluids has been the focus of a great deal of research. With an increasing number of analytical instruments becoming field portable, the possibility of in situ analysis at crime scenes and instant suspect information is quickly becoming a reality.

Raman Spectroscopy and Sex Determination

Most recently, researchers at the University of Albany (Muro et al, 2016) have highlighted the possibility of using portable Raman Spectroscopy to determine the sex of an individual based only on their saliva in real-time.

The study utilised a total of 48 saliva samples from both male and female donors of multiple ethnicities, depositing the samples onto aluminium foil and drying overnight. Samples were then subjected to Raman analysis and the chemical signatures scrutinised to determine whether or not the saliva of male donors differed from that of female donors.

Raman Spectroscopy is a non-destructive analytical technique used for analyte identification based on molecular vibrations. As a basic explanation, monochromatic light is initially directed towards the sample, some of this light simply passing through the sample and some of it being scattered. A small amount of this scattered light experiences an energy shift due to interactions between the sample and the incident light. These energy shifts are detected and transformed into a visual representation. The resulting Raman spectrum typically plots frequency vs intensity of the energy shifted light. The positions of different bands on this spectrum relate to the molecular vibrations within the sample which, if interpreted correctly, can allow for the identification of analytes.

Raman spectra are somewhat characteristic of the chemical composition of the sample. In the case of the saliva analysed in this study, the features of the spectra were largely caused by amino acids and proteins. When comparing the respective spectra from male and female donors, by eye they appear remarkably similar. However using multivariate data analysis, a statistical technique used to analyse data with multiple variables, the researchers were able to distinguish between the saliva of male donors and that of female donors, reporting the ability to ascertain the sex of the donor with an accuracy of an impressive 94%.


Comparison of male and female saliva Raman spectra (Muro et al, 2016)

Although only a proof-of-concept paper, the research demonstrates the possibility of using portable Raman spectroscopy as a method of elucidating donor information, in this case sex, through the analysis of a bodily fluid. The researchers suggest further work will be conducted to include other bodily fluids and donor characteristics.

At this point, the usefulness of the research is limited. Although instantly establishing the sex of the donor of a bodily fluid can aid investigators in developing a suspect or victim profile more efficiently, the pool of potential donors is still huge. The total of 48 saliva donors used in this study is of course not a sufficient representation of the population, thus a much larger sample set would be required to fully evaluate the technique, including non-laboratory setting experiments. Furthermore, there is a wide range of medical conditions and additional factors that can result in changes in the chemical composition of saliva and thus could influence the effectiveness of this technique. Whether or not certain diseases or external influences can hinder gender determination using this method would need to be investigated.

Previous Research

The idea of utilising analytical chemistry to ascertain donor information is not in itself novel, and other researchers have attempted to achieve the same goal through different means.

In 2015, scientists also based at the University of Albany (Huynh et al, 2015) developed a biocatalytic assay approach to the analysis of amino acids in fingerprints to determine the sex of the donor. The study boasted an accuracy of 99%, with the sex differences believed to be due to the higher concentration of amino acids in fingerprints deposited by females.

Research by Takeda et al in 2009 used Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectroscopy to determine differences between the urine and saliva samples of different donors based on the detection and comparison of different metabolites. Certain compounds, including acetate, formate, glycine and pyruvate, were found in higher concentrations in male samples, allowing for the differentiation between male and female bodily fluids.

The focus of such research is not limited to sex differentiation, for instance some research has even focused on establishing whether a blood sample belongs to a smoker or non-smoker. Utilising gas chromatography mass spectrometry with a solid phase microextraction pre-concentration step, Mochalski et al (2013) were able to effectively distinguish between the blood and breath of smokers and non-smokers due to the ten-fold increase in levels of benzene and toluene, a conclusion which has been repeated by other researchers.

Looking at just this small handful of studies, it becomes evident that certain analytical techniques have the potential power to ascertain a range of information about the donor of a bodily fluid. However all of these immunoassay and mass spectrometry techniques are typically time-consuming, requiring the transportation of a sample to a laboratory, sometimes extensive sample preparation, followed by a form of analysis that will often destroy the sample. This is evidentially not ideal during a time-sensitive criminal investigation in which sample amount may be limited.

To an extent, the research utilising Raman spectroscopy to determine sex from saliva does alleviate some of these problems. The portability of Raman devices allows for in situ analysis, removing the need for expensive and time-consuming laboratory analysis. As Raman spectroscopy is based on the interaction between the sample analyte and light, it is a non-destructive technique, allowing the sample to be preserved for storage and further analyses is required.

Although these techniques do not hold the power of DNA in almost irrefutably identifying the suspect, they may at least aid investigators in narrowing down their pool of suspects and steering the investigation in the right direction. No doubt further advances in analytical chemistry will allow for more accurate and robust techniques in the future.



Huynh, C et al. Forensic identification of gender from fingerprints. Anal. Chem. 87(2015), pp11531-11536.

Mochalski, P et al. Blood and breath levels of selected volatile organic compounds in healthy volunteers. Analyst. 7(2013), pp2134-2145.

Muro, C. L et al. Sex determination based on Raman Spectroscopy of saliva traces for forensic purposes. Anal. Chem. 88(2016), pp12489-12493.

Takeda, I et al. Understanding the human salivary metabolome. NMR Biomed. 22(2009), pp577-584.