In order to smuggle illegal drugs into prisons, people are now soaking materials like paper and fabric in such drugs, letting the materials dry, then passing them along to inmates. A new portable device, however, sees through that ruse.
First of all, what would an inmate do with something like a drug-soaked letter or other piece of paper?
Well, in the case of a potentially lethal synthetic cannabinoid known as Spice, the material gets torn into smaller pieces which are sold to other inmates. Those buyers then crumple those pieces up and smoke them using a vape pen. If they’re not careful, severe side effects including psychosis, stroke and seizures may occur.
Currently, the most effective method of detecting such drugs within other materials involves lab-based techniques like gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Needless to say, it would be better if prison staff had a simple, portable means of performing onsite inspections which delivered instant results.
That’s where the experimental new device comes in. Created by Prof. Christopher Pudney and colleagues at Britain’s University of Bath, the handheld gadget simply has to be touched to a material and then activated.
It proceeds to illuminate the material with a specific wavelength of ultraviolet light, which causes fluorophore chemicals in the drug to fluoresce. That telltale light signal is detected by the device, which alerts the user via a ring of LEDs – the higher the concentration of the drug, the greater the number of LEDs which illuminate red instead of green.
This sheet of paper evidently does contain some SpiceNicolas Delves-Broughton, University of Bath
Complicating matters, however, is the fact that the base material itself also has a fluorescence signal which interferes with that of the drug. For that reason, the device has an onboard library consisting of the signals of approximately 400 different materials.
When a sample is being analyzed, the device starts by setting the base material’s previously cataloged fluorescence signal as a neutral background. Any signal which is detected above and beyond that background will therefore be that of the targeted drug.
And while the current version of the device is optimized for the detection of Spice – it’s 95% accurate at doing so – the scientists believe it could be adapted to detect other dangerous synthetic drugs such as benzodiazepines and opioids. It could also be utilized in settings other than prisons, such as homeless shelters.
Plans for the technology to be cleared for a UK commercial rollout within a matter of months, with a global rollout to follow.
“Our device is truly ground-breaking,” said Pudney. “It’s battery-operated, ultra-portable, low-cost and gives instant results that anyone can interpret.”
A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.