The ability to detect if someone is under the influence of alcohol or some kind of drug is important for many workplaces, for police in keeping intoxicated people off the roads and for hospitals in formulating the right response to a potential overdose.
At the University of North Texas, chemistry professor Guido Verbeck is developing a device that detects a whole range of drugs from someone's breath. The device uses special filters and a mini mass spectrometer, which calculates masses of different molecules in a sample.
"A breathalyzer is specifically for ethanol. It's a very small molecule, so it's very volatile, it's very easy to detect," Verbeck explained. "When we get to bigger drugs — opioids, cannabinoids, methamphetamines, those types of things — these molecules are a lot bigger, much more difficult to trap in air."
The device, which is about to enter the market, will initially test for tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis.
On the device being able to detect new drugs
That's the beautiful thing about the mass spectrometer: The reason it's so trusted is because it's had a 30-to-40-year history in forensics. It can learn new compounds. And so if a cop sees somebody that's clearly under the influence, but he's not blowing what we have in the library, then a red light will go off. And we can start taking the molecule apart with this same instrument and start to determine whether it's a methcathinone backbone or a new synthetic cannabinoid or a new fentanyl. In these cases we can actually learn with the instrument.
On this technology helping emergency responders and hospitals
Our partner in this, InspectIR, came up with the idea that hospitals when people come in and if they're shot or have some sort of medical emergency, they may already be under the influence of some drug. The doctors don't know, but they're going to prescribe or they're going to dose them. So, an instrument like this would tell the doctor, "Hey this person is already on something," and then quantitate that. In the past, it's always been whether you've had the drug or not; we've never had to quantitate. But now that opioids are prescribed and now that cannabinoids may come down as legal, then we have to have a way to not just say that it's there, but how much.
On the next step for the device
Next, we've got to go into clinical. One of the nice things about technology is currently we have the ability to create breath. We can mix the amount of moisture — carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, whatever we want — into a field stream, and then we use a permeation to get us the chemistry we're interested in detecting. So this makes a great lab platform for detecting breath and what's on breath and what's our sensitivity. Of course, then the next step is getting people to blow into it.
Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.