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Forensic Investigators Go Nano

Lauren Silverman
This nanomanipulator detects and analyzes chemicals on the nanoscale.

New technology out of Texas is making it harder for criminals to cover their tracks. A University of North Texas chemistry professor has created a device for the U.S. Department of Justice to analyze the tiny particles of inks, paints, and other materials criminals use to create counterfeit documents. It’s called a nanomanipulator.

In a large basement laboratory at UNTAssociate Professor of Chemistry Guido Verbeck points to what looks like a large microscope. In the space where you’d normally put a specimen there are four tiny metal robotic arms.

“We do this so we can look at things on the very, very small scale,” Verbeck says.

But “very, very small” doesn’t quite give you the picture. This machine analyzes residues that are a billionth of a billionth of a gram small.

“So I can stick a document underneath this platform,” Verbeck says, “go to the specific ink, extract it and analyze that, and not leave a footprint behind of where I’ve been.”

This device, being built for the Department of Justice, will be able to help investigators determine if someone has modified a document in any way – say changed a number in a balance sheet – even if the criminal used the same pen, only hours later.

Sucking Up A Sample

Verbeck explains the first step is extracting the sample – which you do with a tiny metal tip attached to one of those robotic arms. And those robotic arms? You move them with a joystick.

“Anybody who’s played PlayStation 3 or the Xbox has got to be comfortable with the way this manipulator works,” he says.

Once the sample is in the tip, it’s analyzed in a machine called a mass spectrometer.

Next Generation Analysis

Another nanomanipulator created by Verbeck is already being used by the Department of Defense. It was developed to analyze fingerprints for traces of illicit materials.

“We could stick [the sample] under the microscope, go into the ridges of the fingerprint and extract any chemistry the person has touched. So if they’ve touched explosives or drugs or any illicit chemistry we can extract it,” Verbeck says.

This is the next generation of trace evidence analysis, says Gerry LaPorte, director of the Office of Investigative and Forensic Science with the National Institute of Justice.

LaPorte, who worked for nine years with the secret service analyzing threatening letters sent to the president, says Verbeck’s creation is an exciting development.

“What you want to avoid as much as possible when you’re doing these analysis,” LaPorte says, “is to do a destructive sampling. Once you analyze these materials you no longer have any sample left, this could allow you to sample many many many times.”

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
The joystick, created by Zyvex Labs in Richardson, controls the four robotic arms of the nanomanipulator.

LaPorte says current methods require you to take hole punches from documents, the minimally invasive extraction of Verbeck’s manipulator eliminates that Swiss cheese effect.

Of course the nanomanipulator isn’t cheap. At a price of around $40,000 dollars, the invention will at first live in government laboratories. Then, Verbeck says, the hope is to bring it to local law enforcement.

From Crime To Cancer

Chemistry professor Guido Verbeck is taking the nanotechnology he’s used for forensics and applying it to cancer.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas gave Verback a grant of more than $180,000 to transform his nanomanipulator into this instrument, which will look at the tiniest of human cells.

“So now what we’ve done is we can take one cell, at any stage in its lifetime, go in extract one organelle out and look at the chemical differences,” Verbeck says.

“And we’ve seen that cancers already have different chemistry in that cell. So this is where we really want to grow this technology.”

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.