Forensics at your Fingertips: Are we Moving Towards On-Scene Identification?


Forensic science is based on the idea that every interaction leaves a trace, so every crime leaves some evidence of the perpetrator. As a result, identifying and analyzing both known and unknown substances is a vital part of forensic science. In this way, justice often depends on reliable analytical methods and techniques. The latest advances in analytical chemistry now promise a new era of forensic science.

Forensic science plays a critical part in the justice system by providing unbiased science-based information that aids investigations. When a crime is committed, evidence is often collected from people of interest or the scene of the offence. Samples of the evidence are then transported to a crime laboratory, where they are analyzed. The results can then inform investigations and aid prosecution in court.

Vital forensic evidence can be as small as a stray fiber, a droplet of blood, or a chemical residue. The evolution of forensic science, therefore, has relied upon advances in analytical techniques to identify and analyze even the smallest traces of evidence.1,2

It is essential for forensic scientists to utilize effective analytical techniques and provide results that can be confidently used in court. However, forensic scientists are frequently challenged by complex evidence which is only present in trace quantities (see Chapter 1) and the constant need to analyze ever-changing unknown substances (see Chapter 4). Forensics is a complex field that encompasses multiple disciplines and requires a plethora of analytical techniques to interpret evidence accurately and ultimately solve crimes.

As the world’s leading conference on analytical science, Pittcon is the ideal place to learn more about the current challenges and solutions for forensic analysis. This article will outline some of the latest advancements in forensic science that will be covered at Pittcon 2019.

Mass spectrometry (MS) in forensic analysis

MS has been routinely used in forensic science since the 1990s and is the widely accepted as the most accurate and reliable method of chemical analysis in forensics, thanks to its combination of benefits including high selectivity and sensitivity. As a result, typical forensic science laboratories employ a range of MS-based methods.

MS involves ionizing the compounds in a sample and separating the ions based on their mass-to-charge ratio to produce a spectrum, which can be interpreted to determine the chemical structure of the compounds present. MS is employed in a wide range of forensic applications including drug analysis, toxicology, arson investigations, and analyzing explosive, gunshot, and other trace residues. Forensic laboratories rely on standard analytical techniques like gas chromatography (GC)-MS and liquid chromatography (LC)-MS which use chromatography to separate molecules prior to analysis by MS.

Mass Spectrometry is a rapidly developing technology, and many new MS techniques are now finding applications in forensic science. For example, researchers are now able to use MS imaging (MSI) techniques such as matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization (MALDI)-MSI to map trace residues on fingerprints, strands of hair, and tissues samples. For more about novel MS techniques and applications see Chapter 2 (MS Innovations in Forensics) of this article.

The Pittcon 2019 Expo will feature suppliers of instrumentation for standard MS techniques, such as GC-MS, and cutting-edge techniques, like MALDI-MSI. Thermo Fisher Scientific will display their complete GC-MS solutions that can meet the routine demands of forensic laboratories, while Bruker Daltonics will exhibit their MALDI-MSI solutions, and JEOL will present high-resolution mass spectrometers.10-13

Latest developments in forensic analysis

Although forensic science has traditionally relied heavily on MS, spectroscopic techniques such as Raman spectroscopy can also bring a range of benefits. Raman spectroscopy is a rapid, non-destructive technique that can identify compounds by measuring their vibrational energy. The Pittcon 2019 Expo will feature Raman spectrometers from Renishaw, including the new inVia Qontor, Renishaw’s most advanced Raman microscope.14-16

Many areas of analytical science are now moving towards portable solutions, and forensic analysis is no exception. On-scene identification techniques that reduce the time and expertise required to conduct analyses can provide increased reliability, reduced backlogs, and result in faster investigations. A range of portable analytical equipment is now commercially available, including mass spectrometers (see Chapter 2) and Raman spectrometers (see Chapter 3). Pittcon 2019 will feature a short course entitled ‘Modern Portable Analytical Spectroscopy,’ which will cover the capabilities and applications of modern portable spectrometers.

At the Pittcon Expo, HORIBA will be available to demonstrate their next generation portable forensic light source. With unmatched reliability in a light-weight package, the Mini-CrimeScope Advance from HORIBA brings the intensity of the laboratory to crime scenes, revealing fingerprints, bodily fluids, trace evidence, bite marks and bruises, shoeprints, gunshot residues, bone fragments, and drug residues that cannot usually be seen by the human eye, so they can be sampled and further analyzed.

Forensics at Pittcon 2019

The Pittcon Conference and Expo is the ideal place for researchers and forensic scientists to learn about developments in their field and stay up to date with the latest technology. With a range of relevant symposia, short-courses, and exhibitors, Pittcon 2019 will be a busy and valuable experience for forensic scientists. Forensic research will be featured in the 2nd Annual Forensic Science Symposium, organized by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

This article provides an overview of the latest research in the field of forensics that will be presented at Pittcon 2019 and how recent advances in analytical technology are progressing the field.


  1. The impact of forensic science research and development’
  2. ‘Forensic Sciences’
  3. ‘Forensic Mass Spectrometry’ — Lesney MS, Today’s Chemist at Work, 2004.
  4. ‘A History of the Forensic Applications of Mass Spectrometry’ — Jackson GP, Barkett MA, The Encyclopedia of Mass Spectrometry, 2016.
  5. ‘Mass Spectrometry’
  6. ‘Mass Spectrometers: A Short Explanation for the Absolute Novice’ –
  7. ‘How is Gas Chromatography Used in Forensics?’
  8. ‘Molecular imaging by mass spectrometry: application to forensics’ — Porta T, Varesio E, Kraemerb T, Hopfgartner G, Spectroscopy Europe, 2011.
  9. ‘Revealing Individual Lifestyles through Mass Spectrometry Imaging of Chemical Compounds in Fingerprints’ — Hinners P, O’Neill KC, Lee YJ, Scientific Reports, 2018.
  10. ‘MALDI imaging’
  11. ‘rapifleX’
  12. ‘Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS)’
  13. ‘Mass Spectrometers’
  14. ‘Raman spectroscopy for forensic purposes: Recent applications for serology and gunshot residue analysis’ — DotyIgor KC, Lednev IK, TrAC Trends in Analytical Chemistry, 2018.
  15. ‘A basic overview of Raman spectroscopy’–25805
  16. ‘inVia™ confocal Raman microscope’–6260
  17. ‘Latent Fingerprint Detection’
  18. ‘Mini-CrimeScope Advance’
  19. ‘National Institute of Justice’

Chapter 1 – Could your lifestyle choice be used as criminal evidence?

Forensic profiling involves using trace evidence left at a crime scene to create a profile of an offender. The Pittcon 2nd Annual Forensic Science Symposium will feature talks on analyzing trace evidence and producing lifestyle profiles of offenders to aid identification and prosecution.

Profiling is used by law enforcement agencies to identify suspects and link similar cases that may have been committed by the same offender. Criminal profiling can involve predicting psychological, demographic, behavioral, or lifestyle traits of an unknown offender. Predictions can then be used to identify an offender or support their prosecution in court.

While behavioral and psychological profiling is often seen as unscientific and misleading, forensic profiling using physical evidence taken from crime scenes provides an unbiased and scientific way to understand the lifestyle of an offender, reduce the pool of suspects, and ultimately aid prosecution.

Chemical residues can reveal our lifestyle choices

Recent research has shown that analyzing chemical residues taken from fingerprints can identify traces of blood, drugs, alcohol, metabolites, hair, cleaning products, and personal hygiene products. Chemical residues can be analyzed and used to create a profile of an individual who has left a fingerprint at a crime scene, even if fingerprints are smudged, incomplete, or not in police databases.

In one example, analysis of a fingermark during a harassment case in the UK identified the presence of a metabolite that only forms when cocaine and alcohol are consumed together. The evidence was used in court to provide insight into the defendant’s state of mind when the offense was committed.

Residues left on our skin by our environment, diet, exercise habits, clothes, medications, and skin care products can also be transferred to personal belongings. As a result, analyzing the residues left on belongings can indicate the lifestyle and identity of the owner.

Analyzing chemical residues on items left at crime scenes may help investigators to understand the lifestyle of the owner of the item and identify them. Research by Dr Amina Bouslimani and her team from the University of California has shown that swabbing and analyzing residues left on mobile phones can reveal information about the diet, medical status, personal hygiene products, and movements of the phone’s owner. Furthermore, the team was able to correctly link phones with their owners by comparing residues on the phones with samples taken from the owner’s hands.

Dr Bouslimani will outline her latest research into lifestyle profiling from personal objects at Pittcon 2019 in her presentation entitled ‘Lifestyle Profiling Using Metabolomics of Personal Objects.’ The team from the University of California collected samples from hands and personal objects and identified food derived molecules, beauty products, insect repellents, medications, and illicit drug residues. The researchers then constructed unbiased lifestyle profiles for individuals.

Analyzing trace residues such as those on fingerprints or personal objects places high demands on analytical equipment, including requiring very high sensitivity. Dr Bouslimani and her research colleagues relied on UPLC-MS analysis to separate and identify chemical residues, using an UltiMate 3000 UPLC system from Thermo Fisher Scientific combined with a Maxis Q-TOF mass spectrometer from Bruker Daltonics.

Thermo Fisher Scientific will be attending Pittcon 2019, and exhibiting their UltiMate 3000 HPLC and UPLC Systems, while Phenomenex will display their UPLC columns. Pittcon attendees who are interested in UPLC may also be interested in attending the James L Waters Symposium, which will feature a range of presentations on the history, development, and applications of UHPLC.7

Microbial signatures in crime scene investigation

Microbes, which are present at every crime scene, could provide unique physical evidence. Recent advances in DNA sequencing enabling rapid, high-throughput analysis have led to the application of microbiome analysis to forensic science. At last year’s Pittcon, Professor Jack Gilbert of the University of Chicago gave a talk about his research into using microbiome analysis for crime scene investigation and introduced the idea that analyzing bacterial signatures left in crime scenes can provide an insight into the offender’s lifestyle traits and be used in forensic profiling.

Professor Gilbert’s presentation described how the way we live our lives influences the microbes that form our personal bacterial signature. For example, having pets, growing up in a city or a rural area, the types of food we eat all affect our microbiome. We emit around 36 million bacterial cells into our environment every hour, so when criminals spend time in a crime scene, they leave behind bacteria. Collecting and analyzing the bacteria left at a crime scene using DNA sequencing can, therefore, give a snapshot of the offenders’ personal bacterial profile and their lifestyle.

Identifying bodily fluids using microbe analysis

Identifying bodily fluids is often crucial to crime scene investigations, but they can be present in crime scenes as mixtures and in minimal quantities, making identification challenging. Previously, forensic scientists have relied upon chemical and biochemical assays to identify bodily fluids. However, such methods lack specificity and sensitivity.

Different areas of the body have characteristic microbial communities. As a result, various bodily fluids have distinct microbial signatures which can be analyzed to identify the origin of the fluid. For example, feces contain a relatively high abundance of Bacteroides and Faecalibacterium, while saliva contains a high abundance of Streptococcus and Veillonella.

At this year’s Pittcon, Dr Kathleen Brim of Virginia Commonwealth University will give a talk entitled ‘Forensic Body Fluid Identification Using Microbiome Signature Attribution through 16S rDNA High-Throughput Sequencing’ describing her work developing a method to identify bodily fluids based on the types of bacteria present. The method, which uses high-throughput sequencing, was able to correctly identify feces, saliva, and semen samples with an accuracy of over 97% using their microbial signatures.

Forensic profiling at Pittcon 2019

In addition to the cutting-edge science presented by Dr Brim and Dr Bouslimani at Pittcon symposia, the Pittcon Expo will feature all the leading companies supplying analytical instrumentation required for forensic profiling. Pittcon 2019 is the ideal place to meet the experts and learn more about the potential of microbiome and chemical residue analysis for forensic profiling.


  1. ‘Detection and mapping of illicit drugs and their metabolites in fingermarks by MALDI MS and compatibility with forensic techniques’ — Groeneveld G, de Puit M, Bleay S, Bradshaw R, Francese S, Scientific Reports, 2015.
  2. ‘An update on MALDI mass spectrometry based technology for the analysis of fingermarks – stepping into operational deployment’ — Francese S, Bradshaw R, Denison N, Analyst, 2017
  3. ‘Lifestyle chemistries from phones for individual profiling’ — Bouslimani A, Melnik AV, Xu Z, Amir A, da Silva RR, Wang M, Bandeira N, Alexandrov T, Knight R, Dorrestein PC, PNAS, 2017.
  4. Revealing Individual Lifestyles through Mass Spectrometry Imaging of Chemical Compounds in Fingerprints’ — Hinners P, O’Neill KC, Lee YJ, Scientific Reports, 2018.
  5. ‘UltiMate 3000 HPLC and UHPLC Systems’!3652!3!335129476768!p!!g!!ultimate%203000%20hplc
  6. ‘UHPLC/HPLC Columns’
  7. ‘The 30th James L. Waters Symposium: Ultra High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (UHPLC)’
  8. ‘The Human Microbiome – A New Potential Fingerprint in Forensic Evidence?’
  9. ‘Microbiome Tools for Forensic Science’ — Metcalf JL, Xu ZZ, Bouslimani A, Dorrestein P, Carter DO, Knight R, Trends in Biotechnology, 2017.
  10. ‘Analysis of body fluids for forensic purposes: From laboratory testing to non-destructive rapid confirmatory identification at a crime scene’ — Virkler K, Lednev IK, Forensic Science International, 2009.
  11. ‘Forensic body fluid identification: state of the art’ — Harbison S, Fleming R, Research and Reports in Forensic Medical Science, 2015.

Pittcon Tracks

Bioanalytical & Life Science
Biological molecules and xenobiotics (drugs, toxins) and their metabolites; study of biological systems; biosensors; forensic science and toxicology
Cannabis & Psychedelic
Identification, quantitative measurement, extraction, and quality assurance of cannabis-based and psychedelic products
Environment & Energy
Environmental detection and monitoring; energy production and storage; sustainability, climate, and green chemistry; food science/safety and agriculture
Instrumentation & Nanoscience
Instrumentation, detection, and sensors; laboratory information systems, data analysis, and artificial intelligence; characterization and processing of nanomaterials; art and archeology
Pharmaceutical & Biologic
Evaluating chemical composition and properties/activities of medicinal drugs and biologics; high-throughput screening and process control; drug discovery and design; personal care and consumer products
Professional Development
Leadership and power/soft skills; career navigation, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), communication, and entrepreneurship; education and teaching and more

Chapter 2 – Mass Spectrometry Innovations in Forensics

Mass Spectrometry is the gold standard for unknown substance identification and is widely used in forensic laboratories. The Pittcon 2019 conference will feature talks on the latest developments in MS and their applications in forensics.
MS provides high sensitivity and is compatible with chromatography techniques, such as GC, high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and ultra-performance liquid chromatography (UPLC). As a result, MS is the ideal solution for analyzing samples from crime scenes, which can often be complex mixtures of trace chemicals. Results from MS are accepted as evidence in court and are often relied upon for prosecution.

There has been a range of advancements in the field of MS, and current research is focused on exploiting and applying recent innovations to forensic science. In one example, novel MS techniques were used to analyze chemical traces in fingerprints left at crime scenes, as discussed in the previous chapter.

MS imaging in forensic analysis

MS imaging (MSI) is a relatively new and promising technique for forensic analysis. MSI provides spatially resolved maps of compounds within a sample by scanning the entire sample and providing mass spectra for each pixel within the image.

MALDI-MSI uses laser energy to ionize large molecules with minimal fragmentation, making it ideal for rapid identification of large and fragile molecules. MALDI-MSI is particularly suitable for forensic analysis as it provides very high sensitivity, label-free detection, and unbiased molecular characterization. Furthermore, MALDI-MSI can measure the distribution of a large number of analytes at one time, making it a rapid technique that can help to reduce back-log in forensic laboratories.

Although MALDI-MSI is a versatile and sensitive technique for detecting and mapping molecules in fingerprints, research is still required to overcome some limitations and assess the techniques’ full potential. One concern for the use of MALDI-MSI at crime scenes is its unknown compatibility with forensic enhancements techniques that are commonly used at crime scenes to develop fingerprints.

At Pittcon 2019, Dr Young-Jin Lee from Iowa State University will give a presentation on the ‘Recent Progress in MS Imaging of Latent Fingerprints,’ and will cover topics such forensic applications of MALDI-MSI to fingerprint analysis and combining MALDI-MSI with common fingerprint development techniques. Pittcon 2019 will also feature a range of exhibitors presenting MALDI-MS technologies including Bruker Daltonics and Jeol.

Innovations in portable MS for forensic analysis

Traditionally, crime scene investigators have collected samples from crime scenes and taken them back to the laboratory for forensic analysis. As a result, routine analyses such as controlled substance analyses contribute significantly to the workload of forensic laboratories, which often have a backlog, resulting in slow results and impeding criminal investigations.

Portable analytical solutions, including portable MS, have the potential to revolutionize crime scene investigation and reduce laboratory backlogs, by providing rapid, on-site results for routine analyses such as controlled substance detection. Furthermore, portable analytical technology that can be operated by non-experts could free up time and expertise in forensic laboratories for more complex investigations and research. What’s more, on-site analysis could reduce the chain of custody for samples and eliminate the possibility of sample degradation.

Portable, high-throughput MS techniques offer a number of advantages over methods that are traditionally used in the field, including high sensitivity and the ability to detect multiple compounds at one time. However, portable techniques for forensics must also be cost-effective, flexible, simple to use, and accurate in a range of environmental conditions. Flexible, ambient ionization techniques combined with portable mass spectrometers have the potential to bring the power of MS to crime scenes and other points of interest.

At Pittcon 2019, Dr William L Fatigante of Illinois State University will give a presentation entitled ‘Towards On-Site, High-Throughput Drug Evidence Confirmation Using Ambient Sampling, Portable MS.’ His presentation will describe his teams’ efforts to develop portable MS techniques for crime scene analysis. He will also outline their attempts to integrate portable MS with spectroscopy to achieve a two-tiered procedure as recommended by the Scientific Working Group for the Analysis of Seized Drugs (SWGDRUG).

Portable MS can potentially be combined with a range of other portable analytical techniques including gas chromatography. For more information about other portable analytical techniques, see Chapter 3.

Innovations in MS at Pittcon 2019

MS will be heavily featured at Pittcon 2019, with a range of relevant symposia including the ‘Emerging Analytical Methods for Chemical and Biological Forensic Evidence’ featuring NIJ funded researchers, a symposium on ‘Advances in Non-Targeted and Suspect Screening to Identify Unknowns Using MS’ and the ‘Miniature Mass Spectrometers and Ambient Ionization’ symposium. The Pittcon Expo will also feature a wide range of suppliers of ionization and MS instrumentation. Whatever your requirements for MS, you are sure to find the latest solutions at Pittcon 2019.


  1. ‘Mass Spectrometry Applications in Forensic Science’ — Smith DL, Encyclopedia of Analytical Chemistry: Applications, Theory and Instrumentation, 2010.
  2. ‘A History of the Forensic Applications of Mass Spectrometry’ — Jackson GP, Barkett MA, The Encyclopedia of Mass Spectrometry, 2016.
  3. ‘Detection and mapping of illicit drugs and their metabolites in fingermarks by MALDI MS and compatibility with forensic techniques’ — Groeneveld G, de Puit M, Bleay S, Bradshaw R, Francese S, Scientific Reports, 2015.
  4. ‘Molecular imaging by mass spectrometry: application to forensics’ — Porta T, Varesio E, Kraemerb T, Hopfgartner G, Spectroscopy Europe, 2011.
  5. ‘Multiplex mass spectrometry imaging for latent fingerprints’ — Yagnik GB, Korte AR, Lee YJ, Journal of Mass Spectrometry, 2013.
  6. ‘An update on MALDI mass spectrometry based technology for the analysis of fingermarks – stepping into operational deployment’ — Francese S, Bradshaw R, Denison N, Analyst, 2017
  7. ‘Analytical Validation of a Portable Mass Spectrometer Featuring Interchangeable, Ambient Ionization Sources for High Throughput Forensic Evidence Screening’ — Lawton EZ, Traub A, Fatigante LJ, Mancias J, O’Leary AE, Hall SE, Wieland JR, Oberacher H, Gizzi MC, Mulligan CC, Journal of The American Society for Mass Spectrometry, 2017.
  8. ‘Scientific Working Group for the Analysis of Seized Drugs’

Chapter 3 – Portable, On-Scene Identification

Reliable identification of substances at crime scenes can speed up criminal investigations and reduce the burden on forensic laboratories. Portable, on-scene chemical identification can be achieved using a range of identification techniques which will be highlighted by speakers and exhibitors at Pittcon 2019.

Identification of drugs, bodily fluids, and other unknown substances at crime scenes is traditionally conducted by making presumptive identifications and obtaining samples at the scene, before sending them to a forensic laboratory for analysis.

Bodily fluids and illicit substances can be presumptively identified using reagent-based testing, such as staining and color-change tests. However, such tests often require multiple techniques and are nonspecific, resulting in limited sensitivity and frequent false positives.

Many analytical instruments have been reduced in size in recent years resulting in a range of portable techniques for chemical identification including MS, X-ray fluorescence (XRF), laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS), Raman, Fourier transform infrared (FT-IR), and near-infrared (NIR), many of which are beginning to find applications in on-scene forensic applications.

Portable spectroscopy for identification of unknown substances

Portable Raman spectroscopy can be used at crime scenes to identify bodily fluids, inks, lubricants, fabrics, and controlled substances. Raman spectroscopy has a significant advantage for over other portable spectroscopic techniques such as infrared spectroscopy, as it is not affected by water molecules in the atmosphere. Furthermore, it requires only a small amount of sample, is non-destructive, and requires little sample preparation. However, Raman spectroscopy can only offer limited sensitivity and cannot conclusively identify every substance.

One alternative method to Raman spectroscopy for unknown substance identification is the use of photoluminescent indicators combined with a handheld fluorescence spectrometer. The technique involves using indicators that form photoluminescent products with unknown substances. Collecting the photoluminescence spectrum of the indicator-analyte product and comparing it to a reference database could enable the identification of unknown substances in the field. David Nash of the University of Central Florida will give a talk at Pittcon 2019 entitled ‘A Novel Method for the Identification of Controlled Substances Using Photoluminescent Indicators and its Implementation into a Portable System for Field Use.’ His presentation will outline a method based on photoluminescence that can be used in the laboratory as a high-throughput screening process for drug identification, and in the field as a portable, simple drug testing system to provide a cost-effective and accurate analysis in the field.

On-Scene identification of illicit substances using GC-MS

GC-MS is often used to provide definitive analytical information in the laboratory. Portable GC-MS has already been applied to a range of on-scene forensic applications including preliminary assessments of airplane crashes, detecting dangerous chemicals in the environment, and identifying explosive residues. However, performing GC-MS in the field while maintaining laboratory performance provides a significant challenge due to the requirement for sample preparation.

Many early portable GC-MS technologies were ‘point and shoot’ configurations that removed the need for sample preparation but also significantly reduced sensitivity and accuracy. However, new rapid sample preparation and extraction techniques are now enabling researchers to achieve laboratory level GC-MS performance in the field.

Dr Brooke Weinger Kammrath of the University of New Haven will give a presentation on ‘Portable GC/MS Identification of Mitragynine in Kratom.’ Kratom is a ‘legal high’ that can be easily ordered over the internet. While it is popular amongst consumers due to claims that it can provide relief from pain, anxiety, depression, and opioid-withdrawal symptoms, the substance has been linked with a number of deaths in recent years and has recently been classified by the FDA as an opioid.

Kratom presents a challenge for on-scene identification as vibrational spectroscopy and colorimetric tests are unable to identify it or its primary active compound, mitragynine. In her presentation, Dr Weinger Kammrath will outline her research into on-scene identification of kratom using solid-phase microextraction (SPME) sampling and a portable GC-MS.

Portable analysis at Pittcon 2019

Portable analysis is sure to be a hot topic at Pittcon 2019, which will feature a short course entitled ‘Modern Portable Analytical Spectroscopy,’ a symposium on ‘Miniature Mass Spectrometers and Ambient Ionization,’ and a range of other speakers and symposia discussing portable analysis. The Expo will also feature the latest portable equipment, making Pittcon 2019 the ideal place to learn about mobile technologies and their potential applications in forensic science.


  1. ‘An overview of forensic drug testing methods and their suitability for harm reduction point-of-care services’ — Harper L, Powell J, Pijl EM, Journal of Harm Reduction, 2017.
  2. ‘The Use of Raman Spectroscopy for the Identification of Forensically Relevant Body Fluid Stains’ — Schlagetter T, Kammrath BW, Glynn CL, Spectroscopy, 2017.
  3. ‘Raman spectroscopy in forensic analysis: identification of cocaine and other illegal drugs of abuse’ — de Oliveira Penido CAF, Pacheco MTT, Lednev IK, Silveira L, Journal of Raman Spectroscopy, 2016.
  4. ‘Raman spectroscopy for forensic purposes: Recent applications for serology and gunshot residue analysis’ — DotyIgor KC, Lednev IK, TrAC Trends in Analytical Chemistry, 2018.
  5. ‘Environmental and Forensic Applications of Field-Portable GC-MS: An Overview’ — Eckenrode BA, American Society for Mass Spectrometry, 2001.

Chapter 4 – Methods for Novel Illicit Drug Classification

New psychoactive substances pose a constant problem for forensic scientists and law enforcement. Analytical methods need to be able to detect and identify an ever-increasing number of illicit substances, the chemical structures of which change repeatedly as criminals attempt to evade law enforcement. The analytical challenges resulting from new trends in drug consumption and potential solutions will be discussed at Pittcon 2019.

People who want to sell and consume psychoactive substances for pleasure, have been coming up with new ways to evade law enforcement since the mid-1980s, when various synthetic opioids including fentanyl and MDMA (ecstasy) first became popular. ‘Legal highs,’ ‘designer drugs,’ or ‘new psychoactive substances’ (NPS) are being increasingly used in the past decade, and as a result, NPS are being created, distributed, and consumed all the time. NPS are designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs but avoid legislation due to their altered chemical structures.

Although NPS are now covered by legislation in many countries, law enforcement and forensic techniques struggle to keep up with the continuous flow of new illicit substances, and enforcement remains problematic. What’s more, new ways to consume drugs, such as using e-cigarettes, also present challenges to law enforcement and forensic scientists.

The unknown nature of NPS and new trends in drug consumption make them particularly dangerous, so research into identifying and classifying NPS, and understanding the effects of new modes of consumption are essential to law enforcement and public safety.1

Are e-cigarettes contributing to illicit drug use?

E-cigarettes have been increasing in popularity over the last decade as an alternative to smoking cigarettes. E-cigarettes simulate the experience of smoking a cigarette by heating a liquid containing nicotine, known as an e-liquid, to create an aerosol which is inhaled by the user. Following the legalization of cannabis distribution for recreational use in several states, e-liquids containing marijuana have also become commercially available.

E-cigarettes are open to abuse by people who use them to deliver illicit drugs. There have been reports of e-cigarettes being used for inhalation of cannabinoids, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, cathinones, and other illegal substances. E-cigarettes are more socially acceptable and widely available than other tools used by drug-takers such as crack pipes or needles. As a result, e-cigarettes may enable people to take dangerous drugs more easily and even in public spaces.

Inhalation allows drugs to reach the blood rapidly and increases the speed of their effects, but the effects of using e-cigarettes to inhale legal and illegal psychoactive agents are relatively unknown. Research into the use of e-cigarettes to inhale illicit substances is limited, so users could be facing unknown risks.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the e-cigarette industry is relatively unregulated and as a result, drug delivery levels are not standardized. Furthermore, varying the voltage of an e-cigarette can alter the delivery in unknown ways and produce aerosols droplets with particle sizes that vary significantly. Particle size is known to influence whether particles reach the lungs, where they are deposited, and their health consequences. As a result, people may be unable to adequately control their drug doses using e-cigarettes, resulting in unintended overdoses.

So far, very little research has been conducted on forensic analysis of e-cigarettes used for illicit drug delivery. At Pittcon 2019, Dr Michelle Peace from Virginia Commonwealth University will discuss the issues presented by e-cigarettes for forensic scientists in her presentation entitled ‘The Efficacy of Electronic Cigarettes – The Public Health Challenge Became a Criminal Justice Problem.’ She will outline her method for assessing particle sizes and doses of nicotine, methamphetamine, and methadone produced by e-cigarettes using LC-MS and GC-MS.


LC-MS and GC-MS will be widely featured at Pittcon 2019, with exhibitors including Shimadzu, the leading provider of analytical equipment for forensic analysis. Newcomers to LC-MS or users who wish to recap basic LC-MS concepts may be interested in attending the ‘Essentials of LC-MS’ short course hosted by Pittcon 2019.

Identifying new illicit drugs

Over the last ten years, novel psychoactive substances (NPS) have become an increasing problem for regulators, law enforcement agencies, and forensic scientists. New NPS are reported at an average rate of one per week, each with its own unique chemical structure. As a result, identifying and classifying NPS represents a significant challenge for forensic laboratories. Specific assays designed to detect well-known, traditional drugs are often useless for NPS detection. Forensic laboratories frequently rely on GC-MS and LC-MS for NPS detection, identification, and classification.

Analysis of NPS using MS with standard ionization techniques such as electron ionization can cause extensive fragmentation of some NPS including synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, resulting in uninformative spectra and inconclusive results. MS techniques that preserve more structural information are often required for NPS identification. For example, researchers have demonstrated the use of MALDI-MSI to detect traces of NPS, as discussed in Chapter 2.

Dr Rabi Musah from the University at Albany will describe another method for NPS identification using MS in his presentation entitled ‘Chemometric Processing of Direct Analysis in Real Time (DART) Mass Spectrometric Data for the Identification and Classification of New Psychoactive Substances.’

DART is an ionization technique that uses excited-state species of helium, argon, or nitrogen to ionize analyte molecules. DART can be used to ionize species desorbed from surfaces in atmospheric conditions. As a result, DART preserves more structural information than other ionization techniques and can be used in combination with MS to provide rapid analysis of a wide variety of substances in a range of environments. Dr Musah and his team used DART-MS to preserve structural information during analysis, enabling them to identify novel synthetic cathinones and cannabinoids. The Pittcon Expo will feature JEOL, the pioneers of DART for ambient ionization.10

Forensic analysis of new drugs and drug paraphernalia at Pittcon 2019

The latest developments in the forensic analysis of novel illicit drugs will be presented by Dr Peace and Dr Musah and range of other researchers at the National Institutes of Justice (NIJ) Symposia. What’s more, the Pittcon Expo will feature all the leading companies supplying analytical instrumentation for the analysis of unknown chemicals. Pittcon 2019 is the ideal place to meet experts in NPS analysis and learn more about new technologies in the field.


  1. ‘New Psychoactive Substances’
  2. ‘E-Cigarettes, A Scientific Review’ — Grana R, Benowitz N, Glantz SA, Circulation AHA, 2014.
  3. ‘Are Electronic Cigarettes Facilitating Illicit Drug Use?’
  4. ‘E-cigarettes—An unintended illicit drug delivery system’ — Breitbarth AK, Morgan J, Jones AJ, Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 2018.
  5. ‘Analysis of a Commercial Marijuana e-Cigarette Formulation’ — Peace MR, Stone JW, Poklis JL, Turner JBM, Poklis A, Journal of Analytical Toxicology, 2016.
  6. ‘Evaluation of Nicotine and the Components of e-Liquids Generated from e-Cigarette Aerosols’ — Peace MR, Mulder HA, Baird TR, Butler KE, Friedrich AK, Stone JW, McGee Turner JB, Poklis A, Poklis JL, Journal of Analytical Toxicology, 2018.
  7. ‘Shimadzu – Products’
  8. ‘New psychoactive substances: catalysing a shift in forensic science practice?’ — Tettey J, Conor Crean C, Philosophical Transactions B, 2015.
  9. ‘Detection of Diagnostic Plant-Derived Psychoactive Biomarkers in Fingerprints by MALDI-Spiral TOF-Mass Spectrometry Imaging’ — Longo CM, Musah RA, Analysis of Drug Abuse, 2018.
  10. ‘DART Direct Analysis in Real Time’


Forensic science often presents problems for analytical chemistry. Advanced technologies and novel techniques are now enabling forensic scientists to step up to the challenge of high workloads, minuscule samples, and complex analytical requirements. What’s more, innovations in MS, spectroscopy, and the development of high-throughput, portable analytical equipment promise to bring advanced analyses to crime scenes, reduce work-loads in laboratories, and speed up investigations

The Pittcon 2019 program is packed with relevant presentations, symposia, short-courses, and exhibitions making it an essential event for forensic scientists. The 2nd Annual Forensic Science Symposium will be of particular interest to forensic scientists, with speakers covering topics including forensic profiling, residue analysis, fingerprint mapping, on-scene analysis, new psychoactive substance analysis, and many more.

At the Pittcon Expo, exhibitors will present the latest portable and laboratory equipment for forensic analysis including GC-MS and LC-MS from Thermo Fisher Scientific and Shimadzu, Raman microscopes from Renishaw, MALDI-MSI solutions from Bruker Daltonics, DART-MS from JEOL, forensic light sources from HORIBA, and a plethora of other analytical solutions from leading suppliers.

The 2019 Pittcon Conference and Expo is a must-attend event for scientists and researchers wishing to learn about the latest trends in forensic analysis. The Pittcon Conference and Expo takes place March 17th-21st, 2019 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.