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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 54, No. 3        February 8, 2002
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

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Gun residue detection Nev. Sen. Harry Reid visits Labs Explosive Destruction System to Aberdeen

Labs-tested gun residue detection technique will help cops ID shooters right at the crime scene

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By John German

When people gather at the scene of a violent crime, police officers investigating the crime typically hear a lot of "he said, she said." Either that or nobody saw nuthin'.

Now Sandia explosives engineers, working with a company that specializes in police gadgetry, have come up with a technique that will help officers at the crime scene quickly narrow the list of suspects in a shooting to those who have recently fired a gun.

The field test kit for gunshot residue detection will be available to some law enforcement agencies this month, says Greg MacAleese, CEO of Law Enforcement Technologies, Inc. (LET), the

Colorado Springs company that licensed from Sandia the chemical detection technique that makes the kits possible.

"Police don't have anything today that can tell them instantly whether someone has fired a gun or not," says MacAleese. "The speed in being able to focus on a more limited array of suspects is really critical to law enforcement's ability to solve a crime. The faster we are able to ID them, the more likely we are to convict them." (See "At fresh crime scenes, minutes matter" on page 4.)

In trials at Sandia the technique was effective in determining whether someone had recently fired a gun, regardless of whether the shooter had washed his or her hands after the shooting.

LET plans to test the first 2,000 field kits with police departments in New York state and the Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix metro areas beginning this month.

Invisible evidence

Whenever a gun is fired, the shooter gets sprayed with an invisible blast of chemical residues that are byproducts of the incomplete combustion of gunpowder and lubricants.

Each LET gun residue detection kit includes a round fiberglass swab that can be rubbed on the hands, arms, or clothing of someone suspected of firing a gun. When the swab is soaked in a proprietary clear liquid chemical, spots where trace amounts of organic residues are present turn blue against the white swab.

"We routinely do trace detection of explosives in the lab," says principal investigator Pam Walker (2552), "so we thought why not take this technique and make it a product that can help keep our streets safer."

MacAleese, a former violent-crime detective who is working with Sandia on several law enforcement technology projects, funded the Sandia test program.

To examine the technique, Pam and Phil Rodacy (2552) lab tested two colorimetric approaches to detecting gun residue on a person, one seeking to detect the organic constituents of gun residues, the other to detect inorganic residues.

Live-fire field tests at Sandia's Terminal Ballistics Facility in Area 3 and at Caliber's Indoor Shooting Range in Albuquerque confirmed that the swabs indicated the presence of organic gun residues on a person's hands 75 to 90 percent of the time, regardless of how many times the shooter pulled the trigger. Various gun and ammunition types were used.

Cheap, simple, portable

After swabbing the suspect, the officer places the dry swab into a small plastic cube much like a toy bug-magnifying kit. The officer pushes a plunger button, which breaks a vial inside the cube and releases the clear liquid, which soaks the swab. If gun residue is present, the blue spots appear, typically in 40 to 60 seconds.

"The idea is that a rookie police officer without any training could swab somebody right at the crime scene and have a reading in seconds," says Pam.

Roughly the size of a cassette tape, each LET kit should cost less than $20, according to MacAleese, who says the kits will be marketed under the name "Instant Shooter ID Kit."

"We'd like to see these kits not only in every forensics lab and violent crime unit but also in every squad car in the country," he says.

At this point, says MacAleese, the kit results are not admissible as evidence in a court of law, but pinning the crime on individuals more quickly would help officers convince suspects to confess or to "squeal" on other suspects.

In addition, the same swab used at the scene can be sent to a forensics lab for additional chemical analyses, the results of which could be used in court, he says.

A new capability

"We were surprised to learn that police officers didn't have a way of detecting gun residue at the crime scene," says Phil.

Most metro crime labs typically don't have the expensive microscope equipment needed to detect gun residue. Police departments end up shipping samples out to busy state police crime labs or contract laboratories and waiting weeks for results, and only in the most high profile cases, he says.

"This technique could make identification and verification of suspects using gun residue detection a common practice at shootings," adds Pam.

Other Sandians involved in the project include Terminal Ballistics Facility staffers Dave Paul, Mike Bernard, and Roy Dickey (all 2554), who assisted with the live-fire tests; Susan

Bender (2552), who assisted with the project management and patent application; and Kevin McMahon of Licensing & Intellectual Property Management Dept. 1321, who prepared the licensing agreements. -- John German

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National labs have large role to play in homeland defense, says Sen. Harry Reid

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By Chris Burroughs

Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories have key roles to play in the area of homeland defense and the fight against terrorism.

That was one of the messages Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate's assistant majority leader, told reporters during a news conference Feb. 1 at Sandia. His remarks came following a morning tour of the Labs and briefings on stockpile stewardship, microtechnologies, explosive detection technologies, and antiterrorism activities.

Joining him on the visit were New Mexico Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, and John Gordon, DOE Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The three senators and Gordon had a similar tour of Los Alamos National Laboratory the day before.

In informal comments Reid spoke glowingly about the labs' capabilities and then answered questions, including one from a reporter asking if Sandia and Los Alamos can contribute to homeland defense.

"The answer is 'yes' underscored a hundred times," said Reid, also chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

Both Reid and Domenici have served in that role, they pointed out. Domenici also said that there is no other committee that funds more activities in the state of New Mexico.

Reid added, "We had a threat yesterday that was made public, that al-Qaida has targeted in very specific ways nuclear reactors around the country. I was concerned yesterday because I hadn't been here . . . I have to say that we are certainly way ahead of where I thought we were."

Also during the news conference, he praised workers at both laboratories.

"Since Sept. 11 we've focused on people who wear uniforms, as well we should," he said. "Whether they are first responders, or firefighters, or police officers, or those people who are serving their country in such gallant fashion in Afganistan. But the people in these labs who don't wear uniforms are every bit as patriotic as the people who do. They've contributed so much to the peace and safety that we now feel in this age. . . . And it's a place where we are generally safe."

Reid noted that while he was awed by the technology he saw on his tours of the two national laboratories, what really impressed him were the people who work there.

"During my stay at Sandia, I have learned the many, many things that are going on here," he said. "Things that are being done here are so important to the state of Nevada, the state of New Mexico, our country, and the world.

"And we refer to Los Alamos, we refer to Sandia, the Nevada Test Site, and other facilities like that really in kind of a non-personal basis -- these are facilities. But each of these facilities is made up of people. And today and yesterday what has impressed me more than all the many projects that are hard for my non-scientific mind to comprehend is the enthusiasm of the people involved in these programs; people who are working here for a pittance of what they could make on the outside."

Reid said, if he had a wish, "it's that every other senator, the other 97 senators [not here] could have been with me the last two days and could see what I saw and hear what I heard.

"It is truly amazing what probably a lot of people in this room take for granted. . . . And it really is too bad that the other 97 are not here. But the three of us are going to carry forth with the zeal and enthusiasm that we feel to make sure to educate the other 97."

Bingaman said Reid had planned before Sept. 11 to visit the Labs.

"He [Reid] wanted to come. He initiated the visit," Bingaman said.

Reid praised Bingaman and Domenici's strong support for the laboratories.

Sandia President Paul Robinson, Gordon, and Domenici all called the morning's tours and briefings at Sandia "exciting."

Domenici emphasized he has worked hard to show colleagues in the Senate how to use the labs --with their "amazing inventories" of technologies -- as a homeland defense system.

As for how he expects the defense labs to fare in the 2003 budget, Domenici said they are "not going to go up astronomically" but he's going to ensure Congress gives the labs "plenty of latitude, plenty of resources."

Said Domenici, "We want to use the labs more, not less."

For his part Gordon said he sees the future of the NNSA labs as "brighter and brighter." He praised the senators' "strong support to our mission, our labs, and our people."-- Chris Burroughs

Back to topBack to Lab News home page. Explosive Destruction System, take two: After prototype debut, field system getting checkout at Aberdeen

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By Nancy Garcia

The newest Explosive Destruction System (EDS), built for field deployment, has arrived at the US Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for operational testing.

Designed by Sandia for the Army's Non-Stockpile Chemical Materiel Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization, the transportable, self-contained system can neutralize recovered, explosively configured, chemical munitions without resorting to open burn/ open detonation. Open burn/open detonation involves packing excess explosives around a chemical munition to destroy the chemical agent in the resulting fireball during detonation. While open burn/open detonation is a viable destruction method, it is not desirable near public areas or where the blast can cause environmental damage.

This new EDS trailer becomes the second slated for operational deployment. The first EDS, a prototype, was deployed to the field last year, following engineering development testing at Porton Down, England. Although never intended for field use, the prototype was chosen to neutralize sarin-containing bomblets unexpectedly uncovered at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal outside of Denver. It explosively opened the bomblets inside the EDS chamber and successfully neutralized the sarin (Lab News, March 9, 2001).

The new field system incorporates a few changes from the prototype. For a more rapid and complete mixing in the containment chamber, a munition (once opened using explosive charges) and its contents are mixed with neutralizing chemicals by a full rotation of the sealed chamber at 2 rpm, rather than the back-and-forth tilt used in the prototype.

In addition, operations management has been improved by consolidating all control subsystems at just one location in the system's process area. The unit itself is a semi-trailer (fifth-wheel, 30-foot, double-drop); the prototype was a two-axle, four-wheeled trailer equipped with a pintle hitch.

In late November, the Army began training and familiarization with the new system at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Formal operational testing, which is expected to take four months, will begin this month. The familiarization process has generated "pretty positive comments so far," says John Rosenow (8118), who supports field and operational testing, as he did previously for the system's predecessor.

In addition, a third system, identical to the unit just delivered, is in the final phase of fabrication and will begin acceptance testing at Sandia this month. A fourth system, with higher explosive capability, is also in fabrication. Its delivery date is late this fiscal year.

The design and fabrication work is a joint effort within centers 8100 and 8700 in California and organization 15322 in New Mexico.< -- Nancy Garcia

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Last modified: March 6, 2002

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