Until this work, the future of mass spectrometry in field work looked bleak. Most mass spectrometers are unwieldy, cabinet-sized machines that require samples to undergo hours of intensive preparation before testing - a huge problem when a large number of containers need to be processed quickly.
Scientists have known for years that without a way to streamline the analytical process, mass spectrometry would have limited use in the field.
Cooks' team has developed a method of creating ions from samples, meaning the lengthy process of sample preparation can be avoided, yielding results typically in less than 5 seconds - all this, while at the same time maintaining mass spectrometry's characteristic low false positive and low false negative rates.
The new method, called desorption electrospray ionization, or DESI, has the ability to detect explosives on virtually any surface at ultra-trace levels, Cooks says.
Cooks believes a portable tool based on the technology could prove valuable for security in public places worldwide. In principle, the technology could be totally automated by positioning the DESI source near a luggage conveyor belt, for instance, which would allow for high throughput analysis, eliminating the intervention of an agent and further decreasing analysis time.
"In the amount of time it requires to take a breath, this technology can sniff the surface of a piece of luggage and determine whether a hazardous substance is likely to be inside, based on residual chemicals brushed from the hand of someone loading the suitcase," Cooks explains.
If the DESI technology is as fast and accurate as believed, it could be useful in screening suspect packages not only in airports, but also train and subway stations, courthouses, federal buildings, schools, and other places where there have been problems in the past.
"Because the technology works on other surfaces, such as skin and clothing, as well, it also could help determine whether an individual has been involved in the handling of any of these explosives or chemicals," Cooks says.
According to Cooks, the DESI technology has already been used to analyze pharmaceuticals at up to three samples per second.
As terrorists and suicide bombers invent new and more powerful ways to inflict terror, so too will the world of academia and research develop new technologies to combat them.