SALT LAKE CITY — Cutting-edge chemistry is helping scientists at the University of Utah tackle a real-world drug problem. They're developing a handheld methamphetamine detector that could quickly "sniff out" the illegal drug in homes, or on a person.
Methamphetamine is highly-addictive and destructive. The toxic drug also poisons the property where it's cooked and threatens the health of the police who uncover the clandestine labs.
But researchers at the University of Utah are well on their way to developing a handheld meth detector. It could help police, home inspectors and even border guards quickly sniff out meth.
University of Utah USTAR researcher Dr. Ling Zang is the primary inventor of the materials, and launched the start-up Vaporsens, along with Ben Rollins, to perfect the product for market.
Rollins said a border official recently told him "Look, if you could get me a handheld device that I could stick in the back of a semitruck, and it could tell me there's narcotics or meth in there, that would be a godsend."
A glowing red clump of nano-fibers is the key. They light up during the search, and when the glow is gone it means the fibers have sensed the meth stimulant.
Each nano-fiber strand in the clump is about 1,000 times smaller than a human hair.
"These molecules are designed specifically, from the very early stages, for a very specific sensing material," said Ben Bunes, a materials science Ph.D. candidate at the University of Utah.
A mesh of the fibers can sense drug vapor on a chip, and that chip electronically triggers a signal on the handheld detector.
"It's just like a big spiderweb down there that catches vapors," Bunes explained. "What's so interesting about it is it looks and functions like the inside of a dog's nose."
The prototype of the Vaporens Methamphetamine Detector is operated primarily in the University of Utah lab right now. But it also detected real meth when researchers tested it out at a police station.
Still, researchers say there's a lot of work left to do.
"I'm used to pure science, where there's not many applications," said Scott Coburn, a chemist at the University of Utah. "In this, I actually get something produced based off of my work."
Researchers expect to have a refined detector that would be field testable for law enforcement within the next 12 to 18 months.
The nano-fibers also have the potential to sense explosives — which would be another breakthrough in an area that's usually left to the dogs.