“Mass spectrometry is one of the most sensitive methods for finding drugs, chemicals, pollutants and disease, but the problem is that you have to extract a sample and treat that sample before you can analyze it,” said Evan Williams, a chemistry professor at UC Berkeley.
That process can take anywhere from two to 15 minutes for each sample. Multiply that by the number of people in line at airport security at JFK the day before Thanksgiving, and you’ve got a logistical nightmare on your hands.
The research from Purdue, led by analytical chemistry professor Graham Cooks, developed a technique called desorption electrospray ionization, or DESI, that eliminates a part of the mass spectrometry process, and thus speeds up the detection of substances to less than 10 seconds, said Williams.
To use it, law enforcement officials and security screeners will spray methanol or a water and salt mixture on the surface of an object, or a person’s clothing or skin, and test immediately for microscopic traces of chemical compounds.
As this kind of technology gets better, the problems of false alarms becomes greater. We already know that a large percentage of U.S. currency bears traces of cocaine, but can a low-budget terrorist close down an airport by spraying trace chemicals randomly at passengers’ luggage when they’re not looking?