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Not only are our customers in the news - they make the news! We contribute to our customer's success with the very best science and technology that never stops advancing.  

Here we capture the more significant and interesting news stories we've been associated with along with our own.


Richard Sleeman, Founder of Mass Spec Analytical, has passed away aged 67

Richard Sleeman was a true pioneer in the field of forensic chemistry. His work has helped to make our communities safer by developing new and innovative methods for detecting trace quantities of drugs and explosives.

We are deeply saddened to inform you of the passing of our founder and colleague, Richard Sleeman. Dr Richard Sleeman BSc (Hons), PhD, CSci, CChem, FRSC, MFSSoc, a distinguished English chemist and a pioneer in the field of forensic chemistry, died suddenly on September 8, 2023, at the age of 67. He is survived by his wife Sue.

Richard Sleeman was born in Exeter, England, on December 3, 1955. His family moved to Bristol, where he attended Weston Grammar School. A keen athlete, he supported Exeter City Football Club, played tennis, and had an enthusiastic amateur football career on Bristol Downs throughout his university studies and first career at British Aerospace. He obtained his PhD from the University of Bristol and was a member of the Academy of Experts and a Law Society Checked Expert Witness from 1997 to 2019.
Dr Sleeman was one of the founders of Mass Spec Analytical Ltd., and for most of his career he specialized in the detection of trace quantities of drugs and explosives. He published over thirty scientific papers and articles on trace detection, and he was closely involved in the development of the techniques and methodologies employed in the examination of drugs traces on paper currency. He presented his work in court on approaching one hundred occasions, including at the Court of Appeal on three occasions. Richard's work has helped to make our communities safer and to reduce the crime associated with drug trafficking and terrorism.
In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Dr Sleeman was also a kind and generous person, always willing to help others. He was a passionate educator and mentor, and he helped to train many of the next generation of forensic scientists. He was also a great friend and colleague. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him.


Simplifying Explosives Detection

Delivering an exceptional Mass Spec-based defensive search capability is one challenge but making it assessable to non-MS users such as security personnel, is another one altogether

Mass Spec Analytical presented its latest Scentinel application software at a recent British Mass Spectrometry Society event. Produced in conjunction with our partners SpectralWorks Limited, the application takes the comprehensive analysis from a triple-quadrupole mass spectrometer instrument and reduces it to a simple Yes/No result. The operator gets instant feedback and expert users can review results, either on-site or remotely.

All data is archived and easily retrieved for data mining or trend analysis. The software can be adapted to a range of other applications including drug identification.

The poster presented at the event is available here.




Mass Spec Analytical Receives Additional Innovate UK Funding for Plasma Ion Source Research

UK Government Covid-19 Continuity Grant will sustain development momentum during pandemic

Mass Spec Analytical, the Bristol-based Mass Spectrometry Ion-Source Developer announced today that it has received additional funding from Innovate UK to pursue its Plasma Ion Source Development work. Mass Spec Analytical (MSA) received the award through the Analysis for Innovators Competition where the aim is to help companies overcome intractable product, manufacturing or process performance problems through advanced measurement and analytical technologies. MSA was awarded a further grant under the COVID-19: Continuity Grants initiative to provide additional support  to the project, ensuring that the challenges presented by the current pandemic and lock down of key facilities would have as little impact as possible.

MSA has developed a new type of low-temperature, direct analysis, ion source for mass spectrometry that relies on a Dielectric Barrier Discharge plasma to ionise the target substances directly from the surface being analysed. The initial work has demonstrated successful results for analytical research, security, and forensic market applications. MSA is an innovator in the design and manufacture of thermal ion sources the DBD plasma source is a next-generation development on the work already achieved.

“The Analysis for Innovators (A4I) programme has provided our business with access to experts and equipment in laboratories recognised worldwide for analysis and measurement” said Lance Hiley, MSA Managing Director.  “That is invaluable to a company like ours developing innovative products. Our project had just got underway when the Covid-19 Lockdown was announced, and our plans delayed. The Covid-19 Continuity Grant has provided us with additional funds to develop workarounds with our Innovate measurement partner and implement alternative approaches to the workplan. The structure of the grant also ensures that the additional funds will pay for a legacy in our business in the years to come.”

Analysing trace substances using mass spectrometry is the most reliable, future-proof method for a wide range of analytical chemistry research and development applications as well as finding direct application in the field of forensic investigations and public safety. The detection of drugs of abuse and explosives has been successfully demonstrated with earlier prototypes of this plasma ion source.


Mass Spec Analytical Announces Agreement to Sell Forensic Services Business to Key Forensics Ltd.

MSA enters the new decade as a pure-play Ion Source Development Business

Mass Spec Analytical Ltd. announced today that it has sold its Forensic Services division to Key Forensic Services Ltd. Known for its Drugs on Money testing expertise, Mass Spec Analytical (MSA)  has been providing testing services for Drugs on Money to law enforcement agencies, both in the UK and internationally, since the company was formed in 1994.

Upon completion of the transaction, MSA will continue to own its Ion Source Engineering business, which consists of a portfolio of Thermal Extraction Ion Sources that it has been supplying to the forensic and security industry for over 25 years.  

“As one of the larger forensic providers in the UK, Key Forensic Services Ltd is in an excellent position to take the Drugs on Money and specialist trace detection testing that we developed to the next level,” said Lance Hiley, Managing Director, Mass Spec Analytical. “After having worked with CEO Nigel Withey and his team over the past 6 months, we recognised that there was considerable strategic synergy between what Key wanted to achieve for its customers and where MSA wanted to take its Ion source business.  This transaction allows Key to expand its service offering and its geographical coverage while enabling MSA to expand its client base for its Thermal Extraction Ion Source (TEIS) technology.

Going forward, our partnership with the Key management team will focus on continuing to invest behind the development of the TEIS product through continuing to develop industry-leading products and applications in the forensic science industry.”

Mass Spec Analytical develops and manufactures a range of Thermal Ambient Ion Sources for Mass Spectrometry. The sources can be used for direct analysis of a wide range of surfaces or media as well as vapour. The sources can undertake rapid trace detection without liquid or gas chromatography thereby reducing the environmental impact of solvents used in analytical chemistry.

The closing of the transaction is subject to usual and customary closing conditions as well as regulatory review and approval, which is anticipated in January 2020.


Debunking Fake News about MSA Money Testing

We often encounter interesting reasons why investigating officers don’t routinely consider using banknote contamination as evidence. Here are some of the more common (and weirder) reasons we’ve encountered, and why you should think again. Besides, why should the criminals get to keep the cash?

1. There are drugs on every banknote, so the evidence is irrelevant / does not add any value to a case

It’s true that nearly all banknotes contain traces of cocaine and other drugs. However, our methods and equipment can tell the difference between ‘expected’ levels, such as traces on notes received from banks, and the levels of contamination found on banknotes associated with drug related activities.

We compare samples of ‘general circulation’ banknotes in our database to samples of banknotes seized within an exhibit. Our banknote samples come from the central banks of England and Scotland and bank branches.

We assess the pattern and quantity of banknotes that have high levels of drug contamination to determine how likely it is they’ve been involved in drug related activities. This means one or two highly contaminated banknotes in an exhibit won’t necessarily skew your results.


2. The minimum value required for submission is £10,000 worth of banknotes

The minimum number of banknotes we normally ask for is 20 irregardless of their denomination.

In some cases, fewer than 20 notes can still provide evidential value, but this depends on the drug tested for.


3. Banknotes can’t be counted prior to submission. If they have been counted, they can’t be submitted.

Counting an exhibit prior to submission is not recommended as the environment the cash is counted in may introduce significant contamination - use a sheet/foil and gloves and retain these for later analysis.

Furthermore, in very rare cases, the banknotes themselves could transfer significant amounts of contamination to each other when counted.

However, a particular pattern of contamination is expected if the counting process itself had an effect.

This cannot be assessed until after analysis and as such counting an exhibit prior to submission could be a risk.


4. Banknotes must be in bundles – not loose

It isn’t essential for exhibits to be submitted in bundles; however, bundles can help demonstrate a pattern of contamination throughout the exhibit. For example, some dealers distribute more than one drug. This is sometimes evident in the pattern of contamination throughout each bundle, which may result in one bundle displaying high levels of cannabis contamination, while another bundle may display high levels of heroin.

Always send in the exhibit in its entirety!


5. Items like phones and clothes or cars aren’t worth analysing because it only helps show the presence of drugs

We’ve conducted studies that demonstrate typical items and vehicles don’t tend to be contaminated with drugs if there is no known positive association.

We suggest swabbing and analysing several locations on the item/vehicle to put the contamination into context. The more areas that are contaminated, the more unusual the contamination detected is.

Why not ask us about our DIY mobile phone or car kits? We supply these so Police Forces can take their own swabs in situ, rather than submitting the whole item!


6. Mass Spec Analytical evidence is too expensive

In July 2018 we released a new, pricing strategy for our services.

Our new pricing structure is based on the weight of the exhibit. This proportionately relates to the number of banknotes so reflects the amount of work involved.

We waive any charges if your job is not contaminated.


7. Polymer banknotes cannot be analysed

This isn’t true. Polymer banknotes are more difficult to analyse as they are a different matrix to paper banknotes, but they can still be analysed

They are analysed using a slightly different ISO-17025 accredited process compared to paper banknotes - they are swabbed rather than directly analysed

Interestingly, the pattern of contamination albeit at lower levels detected on polymer banknotes is very similar to that detected on paper banknotes. This makes differences in contamination seen on ‘drug’ money even more striking.


8. Mass Spec Analytical cannot analyse Scottish banknotes and other currencies

We have heard this argument several times before, so we tested it out AGAIN!

We obtained several samples of banknotes from three distribution/cash centres throughout Scotland, making sure we analysed all three of the Scottish bank’s currencies (Clydesdale, Bank of Scotland and Royal Bank of Scotland).

The results show that the contamination on Scottish banknotes is very comparable to the contamination seen on Bank of England banknotes. This supports the view taken in our previous peer-reviewed studies that contamination on Scottish banknotes is no different to English banknotes.


9. Geographical location makes a difference to the contamination on the money

We’d heard arguments that different geographical locations could indicate the amount of drug contamination to expect, so we put this theory to test.

In 2007 and 2017 we conducted large scale studies by collecting sample banknotes from different locations including urban and rural areas, areas of different socio-economic class and high and low crime areas. We also obtained banknotes from distribution centres across the UK as a fair representation of banknotes circulated throughout the UK banking system.

All these studies demonstrated that contamination levels didn’t vary significantly from one region to another. It was concluded that, geographical location doesn’t have a bearing on the evidence or contamination on the money.

This study is further reinforced by our Scottish Banknote study.



Waters Instruments and MSA Present a Targeted Method for Explosives Detection on a Prototype Thermal Desorption-QDa Instrument

In collaboration with Mass Spec Analytical (MSA) and initially with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (dstl), and Surrey University, Waters investigated the possibility of using the Waters QDa single quadrupole mass spectrometer as a base for a specific explosives residue detector in conjunction with an MSA Thermal Ion Source.

Tests for explosive residues at transport locations (airports etc) are predominantly conducted using ion mobility instrumentation which can be limited for some compounds of interest. In collaboration with Mass Spec Analytical (MSA) and initially with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (dstl), and Surrey University, Waters investigated the possibility of using the Waters QDa single quadrupole mass spectrometer as a base for a specific explosives residue detector in conjunction with an MSA Thermal Ion Source.

Presented as a poster at the 2019 British Mass Spectrometry Society annual meeting, Waters discussed the use of a prototype thermal desorption APCI source attached to a small single quadrupole mass spectrometer to investigate the response of a range of explosives. The poster reviews the challenges including:

  • An appropriate volatilisation process for the current sampling method
  • Determining a generic ionisation process
  • Sensitivity for all analytes at 1-10ng
  • Increased specificity through an appropriate method
  • Real-time acquisition/identification software

All the Ion Mobility instruments that currently dominate this market use a swabbing technique to sample luggage surfaces (or people’s hands) prior to the swab being heated in a thermal desorption unit to volatilise all compounds on the swab. The Waters-MSA prototype was tested against a range of target explosives including TNT, DNT, RDX, PETN, HMX, TATP and HMTD.

There are a significant number of potential variables that can affect the spectral information and sensitivity of the instrument. The data acquired on a prototype/proof of principle system has shown the possibility of a small mass spectrometer capable of the detection of explosive residues in the 1-10ng level. A new version 2 prototype is currently being produced (by Mass Spec Analytical) to increase sensitivity and reduce size. A single TD temperature also needs determining, as currently different analytes volatilised optimally at different temperatures.

The poster can be downloaded here


Mass Spec® and SCIEX® Share Fast Forensic Solutions

‘Ultra-Fast,’ ‘Rapid’ and ‘High-Throughput’ are some of the descriptions used to describe the latest forensic methods from the two companies.

In the world of Forensics, speed is not often a focal point. However, in many instances, forensic scientists are looking for rapid identification of substances requiring high sensitivity and specificity and quantitation falls to the background as a priority.

It is these sort of forensic applications that are highlighted in the latest tech notes from a recent collaboration between Mass Spec® and SCIEX® where the two companies looked at how the Mass Spec Analytical Thermal Extraction Ion Source (MSA TEIS) mated to a SCIEX 4500 triple quad QTRAP® System can be used for Direct Sample Analysis.

The work resulted in descriptions not normally seen in tech notes aimed at the forensic community:

Ultra-Fast Identification of Drugs of Abuse describes a rapid and robust analytical method to detect a variety of analytes associated with illicit drugs.  The method exhibits the sensitivity and selectivity expected from a MS-based screening technology providing both MS and MS/MS information; an ideal tool for high confidence identification.

Switching to a security-threat focus, High-Throughput Screening of Explosive Residues looks at how confident identification explosive residues cannot be achieved solely by measuring collisional cross section. In this technical note, an MSA TEIS, coupled with a SCIEX QTRAP 4500 System is shown to accurately identify explosive residues without the need for chromatography. The combined system is shown to produce rapid and confident compound identification suitable for rapid security screening.

A separate tech note, Direct Sample Analysis Using a Thermal Extraction Ionization Source (TEIS) Combined with Mass Spectrometry, discusses the technical details of how the MSA TEIS works with the SCIEX 4500 Instrument.

These three new tech notes compliment the previous note that examined how the MSA TEIS can be used for quantitation.


Mass Spec Introduces Proceeds of Crime Drugs on Money Trace Analysis Service

MSA are introducing a Drugs on Money Proceeds of Crime Act Trace analysis service aimed at small seizures bound for civil court proceedings

Mass Spec Analytical (MSA) has introduced a new Proceeds of Crime Act Drugs on Money analysis service (POCADoM) for civil proceedings. Cost per single exhibit case is £300.

The new service is limited to small, single exhibit seizures of less than £5000 and tests for up to 5 different illicit drugs, significantly expanding the range of illegal drug-related activity that the cash may be associated with compared to other techniques used for civil proceedings. MSA tests for evidence of Cocaine, Heroin, MDMA (Ecstasy), THC (Cannabis) and Amphetamine. If required, we can substitute these with alternatives subject to further discussions prior to delivery of an exhibit.

Output from the testing is a Civil court proceedings statement; a single page report like a streamlined statement produced by many police forensic labs.

Lance Hiley, Mass Spec Analytical Managing Director explains: “At MSA, we are always looking for ways to help British Police Services deliver justice through robust forensic evidence that also provides value to taxpayers. Developing a product that allows the Police to investigate a wider range of illicit drug offences for the same, if not less cost than the alternatives, seems like the right thing to do in today’s financial climate.”

Cost is £300 per exhibit. If no unusual drug contamination is detected, the cost will be £95.  

The analysis used is the same ISO-17025 accredited method that MSA uses for its current evidential Drugs on Money testing, meaning that the one-page report can be upgraded to a standard MSA full statement, admissible as evidence to the crown court.

Contact us to discuss your requirements at or call 0117 317 3600


Rapid Analysis of Acrylamide in Foodstuffs without Chromatography Revealed at BMSS Meeting

Mass Spec Analytical demonstrates Acrylamide Quantification in Foodstuffs in Minutes Using a Thermal Extraction Ionisation Source without Chromatography

Ambient Ionisation Mass Spectrometry (AI-MS) is an exciting field of mass spectrometry where direct analysis of samples in real time without sample preparation or long run times is possible. However, without chromatographic separation to minimise matrix effects, there is concern that quantitation is not reproducible using AI-MS alone.

At the recent British Mass Spectrometry Society Ambient Ionisation Special Interest Group meeting at Huddersfield university, Mass Spec Analytical presented a Thermal Extraction Ionisation Source (TEIS) coupled to a SCIEX triple quadrupole instrument for the identification and quantitation of acrylamide within seconds using a direct injection. Acrylamide is an organic compound and a naturally occurring by-product in carbohydrate-rich foods that are prepared at low moisture levels and at temperatures above 120C. The European Food Safety Authority has confirmed acrylamide to be a probable carcinogen, so it is important to be able to quantify levels are below commission regulation limits (EU) 2017/2158.

Our rapid quantitation method for acrylamide in foods was demonstrated using the Mass Spec TEIS with a high degree of reproducibility suggesting quantitation is possible using AI-MS. The sample preparation is simple and amenable to automation, suggesting that the TEIS method can significantly increase sample throughput without a concomitant loss in quantitation accuracy.

A poster was presented that provides more detail. An application note will be published shortly. Contact MSA for more information.


Mass Spec and SCIEX Demonstrate Ultra-Fast Forensic Identification and Quantitation of Cocaine in Seconds

Using a Thermal Extraction Ionisation Source (TEIS) Coupled with a SCIEX X500R QTOF System

Ultra-Fast and Quantitation are not two terms that normally co-exist in the same sentence but in a new Application Note published by SCIEX, a method combining a Thermal Extraction Ionization Source (TEIS) from Mass Spec Analytical coupled with a SCIEX X500R QTOF system is used to establish a rapid screening method with minimal sample clean-up and no chromatography. The method for cocaine quantification resulted in real-time analysis times of only a few seconds per injection.

SCIEX X500R system is an easy to use, rugged and versatile instrument, ideal fit for screening and confirmation applications. When combined with the TEIS, the results shown in the application note suggest that quantitation using the Thermal Extraction Ionisation Source coupled with a SCIEX X500R for forensic applications is feasible without chromatography or sample preparation, with very fast acquisition times. This technique would afford a higher laboratory throughput and reduced consumable needs when compared to LC-MS approaches.

The application note can be viewed  here.




Explosives and Contraband Vapour Detection for Cargo Screening

Sometimes conventional vision-based systems like x-ray cannot penetrate inside containers that have densely-packed cargo or items that cannot be identified. Vapour trace detection systems will compliment x-ray to provide more robust cargo inspection without slowing down the handling process.

We recently presented a webinar on Explosives and Contraband Vapour Detection for Cargo Screening with Sciex. We've been developing a trace detection vapour testing system along with several government agencies for several years now. Trace detection equipment can be used in both the lab and in the field to detect explosives and other substances of forensic interest. To allow for rapid analyses, we utilise thermal desorption APCI resulting in high performance and low limits of detection.

In this webinar, we show how the Thermal Extraction Ion Source (TEIS) coupled with a SCIEX Mass Spectrometer delivers rapid identification with the required sensitivity and specificity demanded by security and forensic organisations.  

If you missed the original airing, the recording is now available online.

The webinar will show you how to:

Gain an understanding of how explosives and contraband vapour traces can be extracted and accurately detected in seconds without sample preparation.

See how explosives and contraband vapours can be analysed in a non-chromatographic workflow.

Discover how this single approach can be applied to particulate, swabbed and vapour samples.


Drugs on Money Operational Update

Mass Spec Analytical has updated its UKAS accreditation for testing bank notes and introduced a new pricing policy for testing.

This quarter we would like to tell you more about how we are putting in place a new capability to test polymer banknotes. We are the only UKAS accredited lab in the UK that can do it. Open the attached update to learn more about how we do it.

We have also revamped our pricing. Our new method looks at the quantity of bank notes to be tested as well as the complexity of the case to work-out a price that is much better value for all concerned. We think you will like the new approach that is proving to be 20 - 50% less expensive for most cases. Again,  open the attached update to learn more.

Lastly, not a lot of people know that we background check hundreds of banknotes each week to monitor illicit drug levels on banknotes in the UK. It one of the ways that we ensure that we are able to deliver the most robust evidence to our police service customers. But did you know that we completed a comprehensive, peer-reviewed paper last year looking at the distribution of cocaine on UK banknotes in circulation. You might find the results surprising - certainly the BBC Radio 4 programme 'More or Less' did when they interviewed our Scientific Director, Richard Sleeman, about it. The attached document tells you more.

Of course, we can find other things on banknotes as well. Please contact us to discuss your needs.



Mass Spec Analytical receives UKAS accreditation for polymer banknotes

Mass Spec Analytical has been accredited by UKAS to analyse polymer banknotes for illicit drugs and other substances of interest

Mass Spec Analytical has been working in conjunction with the Bank of England and UKAS for nearly 3 years to develop a method for testing polymer banknotes that is as robust and accurate as the methods used for conventional banknotes. We have been testing the background levels of polymer in circulation in the UK since the introduction of the £5 note and that has accelerated with the introduction of the £10 note. Our polymer banknote database is now over 2500 banknotes and growing rapidly.

According to the Bank of England, polymer banknotes now represent over 30% of the banknotes in circulation in the UK by quantity so it’s important to the continuation of our important work with law enforcement organisations across the UK to offer this capability.

Mass Spec Analytical works with police forces in the UK and abroad providing forensic analysis of drugs on money and other trace detection services. To date, we’ve helped UK police forces recover over £20 million in cash from proceeds of crime cases. We offer one of the most cost and time effective forensic services for the detection of trace illicit drugs and other substances of interest. Whether it’s banknotes, clothing, vehicles, personal items like mobile phones, or just about any other surface, we can help. Unlike many other options, all work carried out by Mass Spec Analytical is court-worthy.



Rapid Identification of Drugs in Sweat Using Thermal Extraction Ion Source

Our Scientific Director, Richard Sleeman, examines whether a method could be developed, to investigate whether the compounds could be detected in an individual’s sweat.

We were recently given access to two drugs used to treat chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL).  We were curious to see whether these drugs were amenable to direct analysis without chromatography, utilising the Sciex API 3200 triple quadrupole mass spectrometer coupled to the Mass Spec Analytical (MSA) TEIS Ambient ionisation source.  The TEIS (Thermal Extraction Ion Source) is an APCI source based on thermal desorption from two heated plates.  Sample introduction can be effected without chromatography, either by means of paper swabs of solid material, toothpicks or in solution via syringe. Further, if a method could be developed, to investigate whether the compounds could be detected in an individuals sweat.  Sweat has been advocated as a suitable matrix for the detection of traces of drugs of abuse and their metabolites.

Our Tech Note describes a qualitative method for the detection of two drugs that was rapidly developed (the whole programme of work described took less than half an hour, much faster than performing this work using liquid sample introduction).  The detection of the two drugs, ibrutinib and allopurinol, in sweat, was effected by means of a paper swab of the skin surface. The analysis required no solvents or glassware, and took a matter of seconds.  Note that the raw drug was detected rather than a metabolite.  This represents a fast method of investigating whether or not a compound can be detected; an assessment can then be made as to whether or not to fully optimise and validate a new method for a wider range of applications. 


SCIEX features Thermal Desorption for Fast Detection

Mass Spec Analytical Scientific Director Richard Sleeman is interviewed by SCIEX to learn more about fast trace detection using Thermal Desorption

Fast and accurate drug trace analysis and explosives detection is essential to law enforcement and security agencies. In a recent interview for SCIEX Vision Magazine, Mass Spec Analytical Scientific Director Richard Sleeman explains why Thermal Desorption is helping our customers gather results in seconds rather than hours. 

You can download a reprint of the article here.


Low Temperature Dielectric Barrier Discharge Ionisation Source for Mass Spectrometry presented at BMSS Event

Research conducted by Liverpool University PhD student Carl Fletcher and Mass Spec Analytical demonstrates Explosives Detection with a Low Temperature Dielectric Barrier Discharge Ionisation Source for Mass Spectrometry

University of Liverpool Student Carl Fletcher and Mass Spec Analytical presented a Poster and summary presentation at the British Mass Spectrometry Society Ambient Ionisation Special Interest Group Meeting covering recently published research into using a Low Temperature Dielectric Barrier Discharge Ionisation Source for explosive detection.

The increasing threat from Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) requires an enhancement in our detection and screening capabilities. Current analytical security screening methods in public places traditionally rely on the combination of thermal desorption (TD) with ion mobility for the detection of illicit substances and explosive residues. Ambient ionisation methods such as DART and DESI are commercially available, but they both require either sample preparation, discharge and operate with quite a small surface area. It was decided that a plasma based ambient ionisation technique would be developed that operated in ambient air, with no solvents and with a much larger sampling surface area.  

The poster and the paper that accompanies it examines a dielectric barrier discharge (DBD) low temperature plasma ion source with great potential for the detection of explosives in real-world applications. Thermally labile compounds may be detected at the same time as more stable compounds, eliminating the need to have different desorption temperature settings for different explosives groups. Four explosive types have been successfully detected using various mass spectrometers with reasonable detection limits, RDX (100 pg), PETN (100 pg), HMTD (1 ng) and TNT (5 ng). The DBD is a TRL-5 prototype that does not require any discharge gases, solvents, adduct forming reagents or chromatography thus, massively reducing sample preparation, consumable cost and analysis time whilst operating with a surface area of more than 500 mm2.

This is a collaboration between Mass Spec Analytical Ltd and the University of Liverpool. 


Novel Dielectric Barrier Discharge Explosive Detection Research Published

A cooperation between the University of Liverpool and Mass Spec Analytical examines how using a DBD ionisation source for mass spectrometry can quickly detect explosives from a wide range of surfaces

Carl Fletcher, a University of Liverpool Student, working with Mass Spec Analytical scientists and developers, have published a paper examining explosive detection using a novel dielectric barrier discharge ionisation source for mass spectrometry. 

The detection of explosives is of great importance, as is the need for sensitive, reliable techniques that require little or no sample preparation and short run times for high throughput analysis. In this work, a novel ionisation source is presented based on a dielectric barrier discharge (DBD). This not only affects desorption and ionisation but also forms an ionic wind, providing mass transportation of ions towards the mass spectrometer. Furthermore, the design incorporates 2 asymmetric alumina sheets, each containing 3 DBDs, so that a large surface area can be analysed.

The DBD operates in ambient air, overcoming the limitation of other plasma-based techniques which typically analyse smaller surface areas and require solvents or gases. A range of explosives across 4 different functional groups was analysed using the DBD with low limits of detection for cyclotrimethylene trinitramine (RDX) (100 pg), pentaerythritol trinitrate (PETN) (100 pg), hexamethylene triperoxide diamide (HMTD) (1 ng), and trinitrotoluene (TNT) (5 ng).

Detection was achieved without any sample preparation or the addition of reagents to facilitate adduct formation.

More information regarding the publication can be found here.

Although the focus on this research is explosives detection, the DBD ion source shows great potential in other research and application areas.

This project is a collaboration between the University of Liverpool (PhD funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, EPSRC) AND Mass Spec Analytical Ltd., and is funded under the Innovative Research Call 2016 for Explosives and Weapons Detection. This is a Cross-Government programme sponsored by a number of Departments and Agencies under the UK Governments CONTEST strategy in partnership with the US Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate. 


BBC Radio Four Interviews Richard Sleeman: A recipe for detecting cocaine on banknotes

What happens when Tim Harford and the BBC Radio Four More or Less team try to make sense of the statistics contained in our latest paper? The results are more entertaining than you think!

Tim Harford presents BBC Radio Four's surprising and refreshing guide to statistics in the news. The program aims to explain - and sometimes debunk - the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life. So when we got the call to explain our paper that looked at the distribution of cocaine on banknotes in the UK, we jumped at the chance.

The paper in question, a study that appeared in Forensic Science International entitled Distribution of cocaine on banknotes in general circulation in England and Wales (C.G.G. Aitken,  A.  Wilson,  R.  Sleeman,  B.E.M.  Morgan, J.  Huish) concluded that there is no variation in the distribution of illicit drugs - cocaine in the case of the study - on banknotes in general circulation in the UK. Richard Sleeman explains on the radio program how this impacts various urban myths about cocaine on bank notes in different cities around the UK and how we use this to prove that some bank notes have been involved specifically in illicit drug activity.

The result is an interesting interpretation by the program on the best recipe for detecting drugs on banknotes.

You can listen to the full Interview here.



Mass Spec to Present at IRC Showcase

The Innovative Research Call (IRC) for Explosives and Weapons Detection funded £3 million of innovative research projects to meet requirements for improved security and counter-terrorism.

Mass Spec Analytical will be presenting its IRC project Mobile QTOF trace detector with Low Temperature Plasma Ion Source at the THE INNOVATIVE RESEARCH CALL Funding Talks Programme – part of the UK Security Expo Exhibition and Conference held the 29th and 30th of November 2017.

This initiative was jointly funded by both UK Government and the United States of America Department for Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. Projects were awarded funding to support the development of supplier’s original ideas or adaptations of existing approaches from other sectors. Each project met the challenge of detecting explosives and weapons in one or more of the following scenarios: buildings and areas; goods; people and/or their possessions; and vehicles.

The IRC 2013 call has now concluded with a number of successful prototypes developed.

We are presenting the outcomes of our project in the form of a poster and will be answering questions about how our findings can be further developed.




Sciex and Mass Spec Analytical Present High Resolution QTOF and SWATH Poster at BMSS Annual Meeting

Traditional security screening techniques can report erroneous responses when based solely upon collisional cross section measurements or differential mobility. A Sciex X500R QTOF coupled with a Mass Spec TEIS-3200 Ion source running SWATH software presents an alternative approach.

Sciex and Mass Spec have successfully integrated the X500R QTOF mass spectrometer with the TEIS-3200 ion source. As part of the test and validation process, the combination of a heated block based thermal desorption (TD) corona discharge ionization (CDI) source with an accurate mass Q-TOF mass spectrometer was tested for the analysis of dried explosive residues obtained from the swab of a surface. Traditional security screening techniques can report erroneous responses when based solely upon collisional cross section measurements or differential mobility.

In a poster that was presented at the BMSS Annual meeting in Manchester, September 2017, The potential application of a SWATH MS/MSALL acquisition for the direct analysis of dried explosive residues was reported.

Using nano-gram levels of known explosives spiked onto a flat surface that are presented to the ionisation source, both precursor and production ion information was generated in under 10 seconds. The SWATH MS/MSALL approach enables the analysis of accurate mass precursor ions enabling elemental composition and isotope pattern predictions and product ion data that are subsequently matched to MS/MS based libraries for enhanced identification confidence.


Mass Spec Demonstrates 100% Participant Screening at UK Security Expo

New Scentinel X500R can screen event-goers for all known explosives in seconds

Mass Spec Analytical demonstrated the Scentinel X500R as part of the Crowded Places Demonstrator at the UK Security Expo held at Olympia, London, November 30 – 1 December 2016. Designed for field and temporary deployments, Scentinel is a versatile trace detection system configured at the exhibition to demonstrate scanning 100% of admission tickets for explosives or other chemicals as part of the Crowded Places Demonstrator.

Detecting explosives or other chemical threats is a tremendous challenge for security personnel not wanting to disrupt the experience for the visiting public.  The Scentinel X500R addresses this challenge using a compact, portable system that is highly reliable and rigorous in its ability to detect explosive and other chemical threats quickly and with very few false alarms. Used for many years by security forces to secure high-security VIP events, this new evolution of Scentinel – the X500R - adds further detection capabilities and quicker more convenient operation making it a powerful robust detection strategy for public events.  

Dr. Richard Sleeman, Mass Spec Analytical Scientific Director explains: “The forensically acceptable results obtained from Scentinel provide laboratory-grade absolute accuracy in the field meaning that the rates of false positive and false negative are near to zero. The system is easy to use, reliable, uses few or no consumables and is so fast, it’s practical to test high quantities of samples in a continuous flow; like you see at large events or airport security stations. It’s also future-proof because it can be easily programmed to identify new threats (i.e., new substances) as they are identified.”

Scentinel’s technology is based on Mass Spec Analytical’s 20-years of extensive and proven techniques of analysis, developed in their UKAS ISO 17025-accredited laboratory.



Geographical distribution of cocaine on banknotes in England and Wales

Mass Spec Analytical maintains the worlds largest database of illicit drugs on bank notes. This new study looks at what has changed since the database was first created in 2004 and whether location matters

A new study is to appear in Forensic Science International entitled Distribution of cocaine on banknotes in general circulation in England and Wales (C.G.G. Aitken,  A.  Wilson,  R.  Sleeman,  B.E.M.  Morgan, J.  Huish). It concludes that there is no variation in the distribution of illicit drugs - cocaine in the case of the study - on banknotes in general circulation. The study was conducted in response to a 2014 court ruling (R. v. Rashid and others, [T20147216] (19th January 2015) and to review the findings of a similar study conducted in 2007. That study spawned the Mass Spec Analytical database of drug traces on banknotes, believed to be the largest of its kind in the world. It has been continuously updated weekly (at time of writing more than 118,000 banknotes tested) with new data since its creation in 2004.

Whilst the 2007 study is a very good investigation of the factors influencing the contamination of UK banknotes with drugs of abuse, it was seen to be useful in response to frequent questions in court to revisit the study in today’s context.

Following discussions with experts at the Bank of England, it was learnt that more than 75% of all banknotes issued are circulated via automatic telling machines (ATMs), the rest goes to banks, Post Offices and other outlets. Money is paid by businesses into banks, and this is typically returned to one of approximately 20 −25 cash redistribution centres within England. Certain larger retailers also send money directly to these centres. At the centres, money is sorted and unfit notes are weeded out and sent back to the Bank of England for processing and destruction.

For this study, access to unfit notes was requested from the Bank of England. It is not known whether or not banknotes continually build up contamination every time they pass through the banking system, or whether they reach an equilibrium state whereby the amount of drug abraded off is equal to the amount deposited, or whether some other explanation needs to be invoked for the quantity of drugs on the notes. However, it is reasonable to assume that older notes are likely to be the most worn, and therefore most likely to be declared Unfit, and it is also reasonable to assume that older notes are likely to have had the most exposure to ‘environmental contamination’ with cocaine.

It is always possible to argue that more is better. However, the data collected and analysed in the 2007 study and the results of this new study provide evidence that the current database of banknotes used by Mass Spec Analytical to represent banknotes in general circulation has been confirmed as fit for purpose.    The new study also noted that, whilst it may be true, as noted in R. v. Rashid and others (p.31), that the quantities of cocaine on banknotes have increased in the time since the study reported on in 2007 was conducted, this current study provides no evidence to suggest the variation in quantities of cocaine has changed.

The study is available here.


Cleaning-up Drug and Fraud Offences

Mass Spec’s drugs on money trace detection services and remote collection kits were recently used by Sussex Police to achieve a successful conviction

Mass Spec’s drugs on money trace detection services and remote collection kits were recently used by Sussex Police to achieve a successful conviction when Trevor Baker was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for drug and fraud offences.

 Mass Spec tested money, personal items and swabs collected at the scene of the arrest. Reports published after the trial indicated that in September and November 2013 Sussex police conducted warrants in which they uncovered MDMA and cash.

 So overwhelming was the evidence that Baker pleaded guilty and was sentenced at Brighton Crown Court in October of this year. An investigation into his behaviour was led by the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit (SEROCU) and the Government's Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The Mass Spec trace detection service for banknotes and its ‘Drugs on Money’ UK banknote database continues to be trusted and accepted by Police forces and UK Courts of Law. In this instance, Mass Spec was able to provide trace detection services for a number of items and then back the evidence up in court with the report and expert witness support.

 Contact Mass Spec to discuss your trace detection needs or to purchase remote evidence collection kits.


Mass Spec Analytical Announces TEIS-3200 Thermal Extraction Ion Source

New rapid screening device reduces workflow times by 30% compared to chromatographic methods

Mass Spec Analytical announced today that its new Thermal Extraction Ion Source for the Sciex API 3200™Triple Quad System is now shipping to customers. The Mass Spec TEIS-3200 is ideal for applications where the method requires a large quantity of sample measurements in a relatively short period of time or where automation is required. When coupled with Mass Spec Analytical’s analysis software, results can be provided in as little as 4 seconds.

The TEIS-3200 uses Mass Spec's patented Thermal Extraction sample introduction device: two heated nickel coated brass plates with a cavity between them. Ambient air is continuously drawn into this space and through a ceramic transfer line into the Atmospheric Pressure Chemical Ionisation (APCI) ion source.  Compounds amenable to thermal desorption, such as many pesticides, drugs and explosives, can be rapidly analysed in this way without the need for any sample pre-treatment, solvents or glassware. The approach of directly analysing materials by thermal desorption tandem mass spectrometry (TD-MSMS) has been successfully applied to the forensic analysis of drugs of abuse, the detection of explosives, and with reference to an increasing database of MS/MS spectra, could help to identify an expanding suite of compounds.

Dr. Richard Sleeman, Mass Spec Analytical Scientific Director explains: “The TEIS-3200 is easy to use, reliable, uses few or no consumables and is very fast. The thermal system liberates samples from a large surface area, and so is ideal as a rapid screening method. Coupled with the specificity afforded by a Sciex API 3200™Triple Quad, the overall system is able to provide real-time results to a forensic standard.”

The Thermal Extraction Ion Source significantly speeds up workflow times by 30% or more for processes where GCMS is normally used for analysis. Much of the time saved is in the sample queue for analysis, which may be overnight, but there are other savings: no solvents, no glassware, no labelling of vials, no loading up the auto-sampler, no reconciling the queue with the sample list, no reconciling the results to the correct vial in the correct position, no GC columns, no special gases.  An added benefit is that the lab would be in a position to give virtually instantaneous results to their clients or colleagues once the analysis is complete.

The analytical system has been peer reviewed by academics and government agencies. Contact Mass Spec Analytical for further references and more information. The TEIS-3200 is available to order now.


For research use only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.


Border Security with Accuracy, Reliability, and Reproducibility

Sciex Blog reports reviews a recent paper in the Journal of Forensic Science1, a comprehensive evaluation using Mass Spectrometry for the trace detection of 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene, C-4, Semtex-H, Datasheet, and HMTD.

The  global company, SCIEX, leaders in the liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry industry has recently written about the work reviewed in a recent paper from scientists working at the Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA). They noted the importance of protecting a country’s border from the war on drugs and terror is a 24/7 task 366 days a year (2016 is a leap year).  Sciex noted that Mass Spectrometry is rapidly becoming the instrument of choice for border agencies throughout the world when it comes to explosive trace detection and forensic drug compounds.

The technology employed in this study was a SCIEX API 3200™ System Mass Spectrometer configured as a Mass Spec Scentinel system: a thermal desorption and atmospheric pressure chemical ionization (APCI) source  The unique feature of this technique is that it is a chromatography-free analytical solution. There is no need for intensive sample prep or LC gradient, the sample is introduced to the source and produces a response in a very short period. The findings of this evaluation concluded that,“The direct analysis by mass spectrometry using the Scentinel transformed the traditional day-long quantification analysis of solvent extraction chromatography to minutes, eliminated sample loss, and allowed the transfer efficiency to be quantified for every test surface used.”

The Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) requirement for testing explosives detectors is just one such application that could be carried out using this configuration. 


New Study Demonstrates Chromotography-Free Substance Identification

A recently published paper demonstrates the capability of using tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) for the identification of substances of abuse and related compounds without the need for chromatography. The elimination of chromatography is not only cost-effective because of reduced sample work-up and consumables, but also reduces the environmental impact of solvents.

The paper, entitled ‘Rapid identification of seized controlled substances and related compounds by tandem mass spectrometry without chromatography,’ reveals how two chromatography-free techniques were used to screen for a large suite of compounds using a rapid, inexpensive technique: a thermal desorber coupled to a tandem mass spectrometer operated in selected reaction monitoring (SRM) mode. Solutions were introduced via autosampler, whilst powdered solid materials were directly analysed by dipping a toothpick into the powder and inserting this into the thermal desorber. The results were compared with those obtained by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS).

MS/MS was shown to be capable of the identification of the same drugs within the samples as the conventional method of GC/MS, but with better sensitivity and shorter analysis times. By eliminating chromatography, a higher laboratory throughput is achievable with simplified sample preparation.

The technique could be further validated with reference to an increasing database of MS/MS spectra to help to identify an expanding suite of compounds.

The paper, published in Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, 15 April 2016 is authored by CM Fletcher, Department of Physical Sciences, University of Kent at Canterbury, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NZ, UK, and R Sleeman, Mass Spec Analytical Ltd, Building 20F, Golf Course Lane, Filton, Bristol, BS34 7RP, UK.

You can read more about thermal desorption here.


Mass Spec Finds £5m of Hidden Cocaine

Mass Spec explains to BBC news how £5million worth of invisible particles of cocaine is distributed on banknotes in everyday circulation.

Mass Spec's pioneering work on banknote analysis led the BBC to our offices to learn how we’ve managed to compile a vast database of drugs on banknotes. Virtually all of the bank notes in circulation in the world today have illicit drugs on them and if you removed all the cocaine off of the banknotes in circulation in the UK for instance, you would have collected 160kg with a street value of £5million!

By using their banknote database as a comparison tool, mass spec can put the findings of drugs from seized banknotes into much needed context.  The on-going use of this forensic approach has assisted in the seizure of hundreds of millions of pounds, and the successful prosecution of individuals connected to drug trafficking, and money laundering associated with the illicit drug trade.

Mass Spec uses the same approach to design and build a mobile mass spectrometer based contraband detector, which is primarily deployed for explosives detection. Have you ever wondered how the police and security authorities secure high-risk events? Mass Spec has one of the first mobile mass spectrometer detectors to be developed in the world and is now used by law enforcement and government bodies to ensure that public buildings, stadiums and transport can be tested for the presence of explosives and other hazardous substances.

You can see the BBC clip here

Image Credit: © Lance Hiley, Mass Spec


Mass Spec Evidence Still Proving a Success – Take a look at our last 6 months!

Mass Spec has supported the police, prosecution and defence in several evidence projects in the first six months of 2015

Mass Spec has supported the police, prosecution and defence in several drugs on money evidence projects in 2015.  Mass Spec experts have presented evidence in court six times this year and have provided evidential statements for 15 others where their attendance was not challenged.  

Whilst the evidence that Mass Spec provides is not the only deciding factor, it is a significant and reliable element that quite often shifts the balance in favour of the party presenting it.  In a great deal of cases, we have not even been asked to attend as the evidence was accepted or guilty pleas put forward. 

One of the more notable cases this year includes the successful prosecution of two men sentenced for Conspiracy to supply of class A in Southampton as reported by the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit.

Another case reported by Dorset police explains how a group of five operating a drug supply operation across Dorset and Liverpool was quashed when drugs and cash were seized after an intelligence operation in Dorset was then traced to operations in Liverpool leading to 5 arrestts. The gang were sentenced to a total of 33 years in prison at Bournemouth Crown Court in May 2015.

Another success was recorded by the Devon and Cornwall police force when a couple were found to be laundering drugs money as reported by the Mirror Newspaper. A couple were flagged to police after bank staff noticed a number of suspicious cash deposits. Upon investigation the couple in question were found to have stashes of cash and class A drugs.

Mass Spec is ready to work with investigating agencies, prosecution and defence councils to produce the most robust evidence possible. Contact us to discuss your needs or challenges and join the many happy customers on our client list.


Image Credit: © Paulsmann | - Drugs Money Health Finance 4 Photo


Designer drug detection variants still detectable

Selling or possessing mephedrone and methylone, also known as "miaow" and "plant food", was made illegal in 2010. Variations on these drugs have surfaced recently but can be detected quickly using Mass Spectrometry

With news that there may be an increase in ‘home-made’ morphine, with the development of a ‘home-brew kit’, Mass Spec has the in-house expertise and equipment to quickly analyse multiple drugs and are always happy to assist with any enquiries as a result of new trends illicit substances.

One of the more recent ‘designer’ drugs Mass Spec has been asked to consider is mephedrone (not to be confused with methadone), which is a cathinone type substance and controlled under the MDA.  Mass Spec validated this new drug quickly and efficiently when it emerged a few years ago and has since assisted in many court cases involving illegal use and distribution of the substance (drug).

If you have any types of drugs or cutting agents that you may wish us to analyse for you, please contact us for our expert opinion and quotation.  We already have a multitude of compounds validated on our systems and ready to go!

Image Credit: © Rolf52 | - Haight-Ashbury Morning Photo



Guilty or Not Guilty?

Dr. Richard Sleeman, Scientific Director weighs-up the odds that likelihood ratio's are here to stay.

When evaluating evidence for use in a court of law, evidential data are presented together with two competing propositions which may account for this data: one from the prosecution and one from the defence. The aim of the court is to evaluate which of the two propositions is more likely. In other words, is the probability of the prosecution hypothesis given the evidence bigger than the probability of the defence hypothesis given the evidence?

We want to know whether the ratio of these probabilities is greater than one (overall support for the prosecution hypothesis), or less than one (support for the defence).

This ratio is known as the Likelihood Ratio and it is meant to represent  the odds before seeing any evidence to the odds taking the evidence into account.

What is the theory and models behind this approach? Dr. Richard Sleeman explains further in the attached paper from March 2015 issue of Mass Matters Magazine. 


Image Credit: © Aleksandar Radovanovic | 


Plastic banknotes won't foil justice

What does the introduction of plastic banknotes mean for trace detection of illicit drugs on money evidence?

As the introduction of plastic banknotes in Scotland has begun, England awaits the much anticipated polymer £5 note in 2016. The new bank notes are said to last 2.5 times longer and are cleaner than the paper banknotes used today.

Cleaner? What does that mean for trace detection of illicit drugs and other substances on banknotes in the future?

Mass Spec researchers are already preparing for the changes working with the Bank of England to ensure the transition from paper to plastic as smooth as possible.  We are determined to take such changes in our stride and continue with the excellent reputation we have earned helping the justice system by analysing banknotes and other items for traces of drugs.

The first challenge we have is the plastic polymer material itself. The thermal desorber that we use today for paper banknotes will be adapted for the new material and tests run to date have been successful.

One of the attractions of polymer money is that it collects fewer bacteria than paper banknotes and can even be ‘cleaned.’ A study by the University of Ballarat in Australia found that there were usually fewer bacteria on polymer bills than cotton-based ones – a health bonus for all!

However for Mass Spec, we’re not looking for bacteria but rather particles of illicit substances that link the money to drug related activities. The contact of the banknotes to the particles in question is normally a short time before they are seized; thereby eliminating any chance of the money being ‘cleaned’. In addition, large volumes of cash are inevitably going to be difficult to fully clean quickly and effectively, enabling our analysis to stand strong with many different cash seizures. Mass Spec’s tests are proving that our methods of detecting traces of substances on polymer banknotes is just as effective as those that we use on paper banknotes today.

Make sure that you’re signed up for our e mail bulletins to ensure that you keep up to date with our progress or if you have any questions on our new work, please get in touch.

Image Credit: © Janis Smits |


Cocaine and Sandwiches

The BBC Points West news programme visited the Bristol-based offices of Mass Spec and shot an interview piece with Dr. Richard Sleeman where he explained that virtually all bank notes in circulation have traces of illicit drugs, including cocaine, on them.

The recent story about a Bristol bus driver who was found to be unfairly dismissed after testing positive for cocaine during a random drugs tests caught the imagination of the press in the west of England and the UK national news as well. The bus driver claimed that cocaine from hundreds of bank notes that he had handled during the day had transferred to his hands and then onto his sandwiches; explaining why after lunch, he tested positive for cocaine after being given a saliva test.

The BBC wanted to add an expert opinion to their coverage of the story and contacted Mass Spec to share our experience with drug – specifically cocaine – presence on bank notes.

The BBC Points West news programme visited the Bristol-based offices of Mass Spec and shot an interview piece with Dr. Richard Sleeman where he explained that virtually all bank notes in circulation have traces of illicit drugs, including cocaine, on them. Cocaine, he explained, is particularly pervasive because it is such a stable compound and does not break down as quickly as many other illicit drugs found on banknotes.  Of course, with one of the largest drugs-on-money databases in the world with more than 120,000 banknotes analysed from over 170 locations across the UK, Mass Spec can speak with authority on the topic!

The insight proved very useful in providing a scientific perspective backed by real-world experience and led the BBC to feature Dr Sleeman on the BBC Radio 2 Jeremy Vine show, BBC Bristol Radio with Geoff Twentyman and BBC Points West Television news.

Image Credit: © Lance Hiley | Mass Spec




Webinar: Trace detection of explosives and illicit substances

Originally broadcast in conjunction with AB Sciex 11 December 2014. Your presenters are Richard Sleeman PhD , Scientific Director Mass Spec Analytical and Russell Watts, AB Sciex Senior Manager – Clinical/Forensic Business Unit, EMEA

Mass Spec joined up with AB Sciex - its principle Mass Spectrometer provider - to discuss the approach of directly analysing materials by thermal desorption tandem mass spectrometry (TD-MSMS) has also been successfully applied to the forensic analysis of drugs of abuse.


Rapid Analysis of Drugs and Explosives

Canadian Border Services Agency publishes paper advocating novel approach.

Government agencies across the globe continuously evaluate security equipment, which is employed in Drugs and Explosives detection applications. Security equipment can be broadly divided into two categories: ‘bulk’ detectors such as metal detectors or X-Ray scanners, which rely on the presence of a significant amount of a material; and ‘trace’ detectors, such as ‘sniffer’ systems, which detect the presence of minute quantities of a threat material which may remain after handling illicit materials.

Trace detectors are used for explosives detection at locations such as airports, stadia or public buildings, and for drugs detection at ports of entry or in nightclubs. Whether the need be for the detection of drugs, explosives or even chemical warfare agents, the authorities must determine the efficacy of the various solutions proposed to address terrorist or criminal threats. To do this, governments must undertake tests to determine the limit of detection of the equipment proposed to a range of target analytes.

Recent work by Tam et al of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has advocated the use of the ‘Scentinel’ system to massively reduce the time required to obtain results. Government bodies like the CBSA regularly conduct hundreds of experiments to understand the performance of the expanding number of trace detectors available commercially. New iterations of existing designs, not to mention urgent requirements to study new drugs or explosives that may come to light, exacerbate the number of experiments required.

The CBSA paper concluded that the Scentinel system desorber is highly efficient for a range of explosives, and that the results it produces are quantitative (i.e. the instrument response is directly proportional to the amount of explosive present). The CBSA confirmed that the analysis undertaken by the Scentinel takes a few minutes compared to the many hours required for conventional analysis and that no sample pre-treatment is required (no solvents, no derivatisation, or filtration).

Mass Spec Analytical Scentinel SystemThe Scentinel is designed and manufactured by Bristol based Mass Spec Analytical Ltd. The instrument is based on an ABSciex triple quadrupole tandem mass spectrometer, which has been modified to incorporate a thermal desorption sample inlet system. The device simply heats samples to evaporate the compounds of interest, and draws the vapour into the mass spectrometer for analysis. 

Contact Mass Spec Analytical on  +44(0)117 428 5787