Scientists develop crime-busting fingerprint-recovery technology

MARCH 15--Innovative new technology being developed at Swansea University Materials Research Centre (Swansea, UK; www.swan.ac.uk/) could play a crucial role in the fight against gun crime and terrorism.

Mar 15th, 2007

MARCH 15--Innovative new technology being developed at Swansea University Materials Research Centre (Swansea, UK; www.swan.ac.uk/) could play a crucial role in the fight against gun crime and terrorism. Neil McMurray, Geraint Williams, and Dave Worsley at the School of Engineering have devised a method of retrieving fingerprints from metal surfaces such as gun cartridges and bomb fragments.

To date, recovering this evidence has been extremely difficult, as fingerprints on metal surfaces have to be made visible with special powders and chemicals that do not work well on the 'sweat' prints often encountered. There is the added problem that these prints can be destroyed by the high temperatures caused by firing a gun or detonating a bomb.

The technique being developed by the team at Swansea overcomes these difficulties by exploiting the tiny electrochemical reactions caused when sweat from a fingerprint comes into contact with a metal surface. Using a Scanning Kelvin Probe--a device that measures the electrical potential of a surface--the changes caused by these reactions are measured and used to produce an image of the print, even from surfaces that have been exposed to temperatures up to 600 °C. The team has already proved that the new technique works with iron, steel, zinc, aluminium, and brass and can also read prints from a curved surface such as cartridge cases.

McMurray is leading the project, which is backed by €211,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. He said: "Our overall aim is to produce a forensically usable prototype device based on the new technology. The next step in our research is to look at fingerprints on cartridges fired from the type of weapons most often encountered in cases of terrorism and armed crime."

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