A new fingerprint technique that has been developed by Sheffield Hallam University, in partnership with West Yorkshire Police, could revolutionise how the justice system identifies potential suspects and how admissible evidence can be given in court – particularly in murder and rape cases.
The technique is based around mass spectrometry, an analytical technique that ionises chemicals and sorts the ions based on their mass-to-charge ratio. In practical terms this means that authorities will be able to detect, via a fingerprint sample, whether that individual has, for example, handled a condom, consumed alcohol or drugs, whether the subject is male or female and even the brand of hair gel they use.
The project team, who have been working on the project since 2012, have also stated that by using mass spectrometry, blood could be detected in a fingerprint that is up to 30 years old, meaning the technology could be used in cold case reviews.
Mass spectrometry is an analytical technique that can find traces of a substance within the ridges of a fingerprint. It then vaporises the sample and fires it through an electric and magnetic field inside a vacuum – this causes the particles to behave differently meaning that different molecules can be identified.
Project leader, Dr Simona Francese, highlighted that a fingerprint not only includes molecules from within the body but also ones that have contaminated the body, so the amount of information that can potentially be harvested using mass spectrometry is enormous.
The way in which fingerprints have been taken and used in criminal cases has stayed pretty much the same of 80 or 90 years, but West Yorkshire Police are hopeful that this new technique will enable the authorities to glean far more useful information that will help to prevent and detect crime.
Unlike the development of most ground-breaking technologies, this technique could be put into action sooner rather than later, with the Home Office predicting that mass spectrometry could be used in case work in a matter of months.
The technique also has the potential for use in a number of other applications in pharmaceutical, agrochemical, forensic, food and biomedical research. It can also be used to investigate changes in metabolism that may occur in the body, primarily in relation to therapeutic interventions or the progression of disease.
What can mass spectrometry detect?