Sifting through the chemical clues left behind by arson is delicate, time-consuming work, but University of Alberta researchers teaming with RCMP scientists in Canada, have found a way to speed the process.
A computer program developed by University of Alberta chemistry professor James Harynuk, his team of graduate and undergraduate researchers and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police National Forensic Laboratory Services, can cut the need for extra levels of human analysis, reducing the waiting time to find out the cause of a deliberately set fire.
That means quicker turnaround on answers for fire investigators, said Mark Sandercock, manager of trace evidence program support for the RCMP's National Forensic Laboratory Services, and a co-author on the research.
"Having results back in a timely way on physical evidence can only improve an investigation," Sandercock said. "By getting the laboratory results back quickly, investigators can use this information to ask the right questions when interviewing people or evaluating other evidence, which will help them resolve the case more quickly by pointing them in the right direction."
The U of A study, published recently in Forensic Science International, is the first to use a mathematical model to successfully classify debris pulled from suspected arson scenes, going beyond research based solely on simulated debris.
Harynuk's team began working with the RCMP's forensic lab in 2008, looking to develop tools for interpreting chemical data. Arson investigation was a logical fit.
"Arson debris provides an interesting set of samples because it is uncontrolled," Harynuk said. "You never know what is going to be in the fire, or how it started. Paint thinners, gasoline, kerosene are all very complex mixtures, and we wanted to develop a tool that would be able to pick a complex signature out of an equally complex background."
Volatile compounds released in a fire can mask the vital chemical data that RCMP scientists need to pinpoint, Sandercock noted. "It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack."
Currently, an RCMP forensic scientist examines data from a sample, which is then re-examined by a second scientist to see whether they agree on the findings—a process that can take hours per sample. The average arson investigation yields three or four samples.
The technology developed at the University of Alberta would allow the first scientist to run findings through the computer program, getting an answer in seconds. Only if the computer gave a result different from that of the scientist would the debris sample go to a second human analyst.
For their work, Harynuk and his team focused on gasoline, the most commonly used ignitable liquid in arsons. They analyzed data from 232 chemical samples provided by the RCMP's lab services, drawn from fire debris in cases under investigation across Canada. From chemical profiles taken from burned carpet, wood and cloth, they were able to develop a computer filter that isolated the signature of gasoline in the data. This signature was then used to indicate whether or not gasoline was present in the debris sample, a possible indicator of it being used to start a fire.
"It's a system that is quite accurate and goes down a similar investigative path that a human would when looking at the data," Harynuk said.
The research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures and the U of A's Department of Chemistry.
Bev Betkowski | Eurek Alert!
Study suggests buried Internet infrastructure at risk as sea levels rise
18.07.2018 | University of Wisconsin-Madison
Microscopic trampoline may help create networks of quantum computers
17.07.2018 | University of Colorado at Boulder
For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.
To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...
For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.
Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...
Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.
A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...
Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.
"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....
Ultra-short, high-intensity X-ray flashes open the door to the foundations of chemical reactions. Free-electron lasers generate these kinds of pulses, but there is a catch: the pulses vary in duration and energy. An international research team has now presented a solution: Using a ring of 16 detectors and a circularly polarized laser beam, they can determine both factors with attosecond accuracy.
Free-electron lasers (FELs) generate extremely short and intense X-ray flashes. Researchers can use these flashes to resolve structures with diameters on the...
13.07.2018 | Event News
12.07.2018 | Event News
03.07.2018 | Event News
18.07.2018 | Materials Sciences
18.07.2018 | Life Sciences
18.07.2018 | Health and Medicine