VIRGINIA BEACH -- Working out of labs in a suburban office park, a local technology company is drawing attention from the U.S. military and emergency responders nationwide for its chemical-detecting sensors.
On Friday, more than a dozen city firefighters, undercover police and hazardous-material responders donned protective eyeglasses and packed into a research lab for their first look at the latest development from Morphix Technologies - a kit able to quickly detect fumes given off during the production of methamphetamine.
The illegal and highly addictive stimulant is often "cooked" in clandestine home labs, sometimes producing a potentially toxic stew of flammable and explosive gasses. Exposure to high levels of the chemicals can be deadly; they can damage lungs and cause skin and throat burns.
"We brought you guys here to show you what we're doing and learn from you," said Ed Locke, Morphix's director of research and development.
Police in Hampton Roads say they have uncovered only a handful of methamphetamine labs but have seen an increase in the use and distribution of the drug.
The demonstration impressed emergency responders who attended.
"Just to give us an advance warning before we go in or before we get too far in would be advantageous," said Deborah Crisher, a safety officer with the Virginia Beach Fire Department. "We get calls every day for an unconscious person or someone with breathing difficulties. We're going to be the first ones there and have no clue what's going on."
So far, Morphix has sold the "meth kit" to big-city police departments in metropolitan areas, such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, said Kimberly Chapman, Morphix's vice president of sales and marketing and a founder of the 12-year-old company.
"We're small, so we've been hitting the big markets first," she said. "We figured if we got the big ones it'd be easier to get the small ones, because you've got references."
For Morphix, the detection kit represents the expansion of an increasingly profitable commercial line that grew out of a Small Business Innovation Research grant awarded in 2002 by the Marine Corps. The military was looking for a low-cost, disposable product to protect troops from exposure to chemical weapon attacks.
Morphix developed a product it brand-named Chameleon. It uses thin pieces of coated film that change colors when exposed to targeted chemicals. The company sells Chameleon in plastic-enclosed cassettes that are mounted on adjustable armbands.
Morphix has developed eight different sensor cassettes, able to detect a variety of high-risk industrial chemicals, said Bart Heenan, the company's chief executive officer.
The reusable armband sells for $30, and the disposable cassettes go for $3 each. In the past two years, Heenan said, the privately held company has doubled its revenue and work force, which now numbers about 40 people, including about a dozen chemists. Heenan would not disclose the company's revenue.
Morphix is working with the Defense Department to develop a device able to detect both chemical and biological agents, such as anthrax, and able to wirelessly transmit the test results. It could be mounted on robots, or "unmanned ground vehicles," Heenan said.
The company also holds a federal contract to develop a protective coating for garments worn by military troops or first responders that would n eutralize toxic chemicals, he said.
n\Reach Jon W. Glass at (757) 446-2318 or .dangers
Methamphetamine, an illegal and highly addictive stimulant, is often "cooked" in clandestine home labs, sometimes producing a potentially toxic stew of flammable and explosive gases. Exposure to high levels can be deadly.
Morphix Technologies' kit allows firefighters, police and hazardous-materials responders to quickly detect the presence of the chemicals.