Explosive new development at NUI Galway

28 Sep 2006

Researchers at National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway have developed software that enables rapid identification of narcotics and explosive materials.

The technology can be practically applied by authorities at airport security screening, on the spot forensics and poison testing at accident and emergency departments.

Entitled Hazard IQ, the intelligent software has been developed at NUI Galway by Dr Michael Madden, Department of Information Technology and Dr Alan Ryder, Department of Chemistry and the National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science.

The technology was presented at the recent Enterprise Ireland Informatics Technology Showcase in Dublin. The software was developed with support from Enterprise Ireland as part of the Commercialisation Fund for Technology Development.

The software automatically learns to identify hazardous and illicit substances by examining a wide variety of samples that have been prepared in a lab. Hazard-IQ has been ‘trained’ to recognise different categories of drugs, poisons, explosive and corrosive materials and estimate their concentrations accurately. It can then recognise new samples within milliseconds.

Dr Madden explained: “If, for example, suspicious materials are discovered at an airport, they can be analysed where they are found and Hazard-IQ can identify the substance in a matter of seconds. This is much faster than dispatching samples to a central laboratory for standard testing which can take several days. Likewise, in a hospital environment the identification of hazardous materials ingested by patients can be made rapidly, speeding up diagnosis and leading to faster treatment times.”

Hazard IQ identifies the components of mixtures and estimates their concentrations by combining Raman Spectroscopy — which is a laser-based method for ‘chemical fingerprinting’ of materials — with machine learning, which is a family of analysis techniques that automatically improve with experience.

Madden’s colleague Dr Alan Ryder explained: “The basis of the project is about using the Raman spectra of drugs as molecular fingerprints. These molecular fingerprints are unique to different drugs and materials and so can be used for unambiguous identification.

“Portable Raman detection equipment is smaller than a shoebox and can test bulk samples of a variety of materials, including drugs, explosives and hazardous industrial chemicals,” Dr Ryder added.

By John Kennedy