Protecting the people who protect us

Protecting the people who protect us

Around the world, first responders and counter-terrorism officers are dealing with an ever-increasing number of incidents. A key problem faced by these teams is the identification of unknown substances discovered at a scene. Any such substance could pose a threat to both nearby individuals and the general public. It is critical to make a quick and accurate identification before further escalation.

People on the front line include hazmat teams managing chemical spillages and "white powder" incidents, narcotics teams assessing a potential clandestine laboratory, bomb squads responding to suspect packages in a public place, and customs officials screening parcels for controlled substances.

Handheld chemical identification

A number of technologies are routinely used for unknown chemical identification. Handheld Raman spectroscopy systems have been used extensively in hazmat, security and counter-terrorism applications for more than a decade. The majority of systems on the market are able to identify unknown chemicals either by a direct line-of-sight or when the material is contained within thin, transparent bottles and plastic bags. However, the scope of these detectors is limited because they cannot identify samples contained within thick, opaque or colored packaging. The container must be disturbed in order to collect a sample. This decreases operational efficiency and increases the risk of hazardous material exposure to the operator and the public.

Identifying hazardous materials through unopened opaque containers

Figure 1. A hazmat officer identifies the contents of a yellow palm oil container. Figure 1. A hazmat officer identifies the contents of a yellow palm oil container.

Cobalt Light Systems - now part of Agilent - introduced the Resolve handheld Raman system in March 2016. Resolve uses spatially offset Raman spectroscopy (SORS), a new-generation technique that identifies unknown hazardous and contraband materials inside unopened opaque containers such as colored plastics, dark glass, paper, card, wrapping, sacks and fabrics. SORS significantly increases the scope of real-world samples that can be tackled by first responders. The Resolve system identifies substances from comprehensive libraries including explosives, toxic industrial chemicals, chemical warfare agents, and narcotics & new psychoactive substances. Examples include TATP (a sensitive explosive used in many recent terrorist attacks) and fentanyls (synthetic opioids that are hundreds to thousands of times more potent than morphine).

Figure 2. Identifying the contents of a package through multiple layers of plastic.Figure 2. Identifying the contents of a package through multiple layers of plastic.

Resolve’s unique capability enables operators to identify a container’s contents without compromising the integrity of the packaging in any way. Materials are identified quickly and with no risk of releasing unknown chemicals. Potentially sensitive materials (e.g. explosives) remain undisturbed, evidence is preserved, and time spent by first responders in the "hot zone" (in protective gear) can be used more efficiently.

Resolve is already deployed worldwide in hazmat response, customs screening, investigation, security, counter terrorism and policing, as well as military applications (CBRN, EOD and counter-IED(1)).


(1) CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear); EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal); IED (Improvised Explosive Device)

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Agilent Technologies acquired Cobalt Light Systems, an Oxford UK-based Raman spectroscopy company, in July 2017.

Cobalt's SORS and TRS technologies are used for handheld chemical identification, airport security liquids screening and pharmaceutical quality control.

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