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Assessing the potential of e-noses for illicit drug detection in future drug-trafficking interdiction strategies

21 March 2013

Paula Tarttelin

Aims: To develop an integrated array of gas sensors and evaluate its prospective use as an electronic nose capable of sensitive and selective detection of illicit drugs in air, within future trafficking interdiction strategies.   Background: Drug trafficking is deemed the most profitable sector of transnational crime, posing to the UK the greatest threat originating from organised crime. Current trends are to traffic legal, precursor molecules commonly used in the manufacture of illicit drugs to guarantee their entry into the country.   Methods: A number of precursor molecules have been selected as markers to indicate the presence of illicit drugs in a sample. A combination of different screen prints of metal oxide semiconductor materials coupled with additional layers of zeolites –known to provide an additional sensitive layer to improve performance– will first be developed. They will then be evaluated to assess their chemical sensitivity (change of resistivity) and selectivity to the precursor molecules under consideration. The combinations will later be assembled into an array of sensors that, upon the passage of the molecule(s) of interest, generates an electrical signal that can be recorded and translated into a unique fingerprint. Data will be visualised and analysed with pattern recognition tools such as Principal Component Analysis. Detection of precursors will further be tested in the presence of other compounds to determine sensor selectivity.  Impact of proposed study: Current technologies employed to detect trace concentrations of illicit materials are mostly lab-based and costly. Electronic noses offer a very attractive alternative to existing methods; the proposed detection technique not only would serve as a control and security measure to detect the movement of precursor molecules and illicit drugs, but its implementation would also provide information regarding drug characterisation, opening new avenues for the on-site, selective and sensitive identification of illicit samples in future interdiction strategies.