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Techniques & Tools Spectroscopy, Mass Spectrometry, Forensics

ToF-SIMS: A Secret Forensics Weapon?

Bullet casing with fingerprint

A team of researchers at the University of Nottingham, headed by James Sharp, have developed a unique ToF-SIMS method for imaging fingerprints left behind on curved objects, such as bullet casings (1). Traditionally, these objects pose a challenge for forensic scientists both because of their tricky shapes, but also the physical conditions the bullet is exposed to – namely, high temperature and pressure.

The team had already proven that ToF-SIMS provides much more accurate and detailed images than conventional forensic techniques, but they have now added a rotational stage that allows even more detail to be gained over the entire surface area of a bullet casing – crucially, in a non-destructive manner. The stage allows the instrument to analyze a thin strip before the object is rotated by a few degrees; the strips are stitched together to form a complete image. The extra detail was able to pick up ridge and sweat pore level detail on samples where no fingermarks had previously been detected. 

“It’s really exciting to be taking this research a step further by adding the rotational stage,” said Sharp in a press release (2). “This could really pave the way for a new reliable way to analyze evidence, identify persons of interest, and link them to the ammunition in a firearm.” 

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  1. CJ Lee et al., Analyst (2021). DOI: 10.1039/D1AN01768C
  2. EurekAlert (2021). Available at: 
About the Author
Lauren Robertson

By the time I finished my degree in Microbiology I had come to one conclusion – I did not want to work in a lab. Instead, I decided to move to the south of Spain to teach English. After two brilliant years, I realized that I missed science, and what I really enjoyed was communicating scientific ideas – whether that be to four-year-olds or mature professionals. On returning to England I landed a role in science writing and found it combined my passions perfectly. Now at Texere, I get to hone these skills every day by writing about the latest research in an exciting, creative way.

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