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  • Fluorescence Reveals Salt in Fingerprints
Apr 2005
LOS ALAMOS, N.M., April 4 -- University of California scientists working at Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a novel method to detect fingerprints based on the chemical elements present in fingerprint residue. Known as micro-x-ray fluorescence, or MXRF, the technique has the potential to help expand the use of fingerprinting as a forensic investigation tool.

(Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory)

In research presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, held recently in San Diego, Calif., Los Alamos scientist Christopher Worley describes the detection of fingerprints based on elemental composition using micro-x-ray fluorescence showing how the salts, such as sodium chloride and potassium chloride, excreted in sweat are sometimes present in detectable quantities in human fingerprints.

MXRF actually detects the sodium, potassium and chlorine elements present in those salts, as well as many other elements, if they are present. The elements are detected as a function of their location on a surface, making it possible to "see" a fingerprint where the salts have been deposited in the patterns of fingerprints -- the lines called friction ridges by forensic scientists.

The technique has several advantages over traditional fingerprint detection methods that involve treating the suspect area with powders, liquids, or vapors in order to add color to the fingerprint so it can be easily seen and photographed. Using this technique, known as contrast enhancement, it is sometimes difficult to detect fingerprints present on certain substances, such as multicolored backgrounds, fibrous papers and textiles, wood, leather, plastic, adhesives and human skin. Children’s fingerprints are particularly difficult to detect due to the absence of sebum, an oily substance on the skin that is secreted by the sebaceous glands, which captures the contrast enhancing agents. Also, coloring a fingerprint with traditional contrast enhancement methods can be an arduous process that sometimes yields only limited success.

Worley said MXRF is not a panacea for detecting all fingerprints, since some do not contain enough detectable elements to be "seen." But he said it could be a viable companion to the use of traditional contrast enhancement techniques at crime scenes, since it requires no chemical treatment steps, which are not only time consuming, but can permanently alter the evidence. Since MXRF is noninvasive, a fingerprint analyzed by the method is left pristine for examination by other methods, like DNA extraction.

In addition to Worley, the MXRF development team includes Sara S. Wiltshire, Thomasin C. Miller, George J. Havrilla and Vahid Majidi.

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