Hand-Held Sniffer and Body Location

30 Aug

So you’re bad guy has buried his victim somewhere on his vast farm. Your sleuth knows this but can’t prove it. Locating the corpse is critical to making the case. Search teams and cadaver dogs are brought in but the days drag by with no results.

Electronic noses were developed for this very circumstance. These devices are basically gas chromatographs. They sample air near the grave where the molecules of decomposition percolate up from the decaying corpse. Thomas Bruno, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently reported in New Scientist the development of a handheld sniffer device, which should allow investigators to more quickly cover large areas, allowing for more timely corpse location.

I earlier posted a note about microfluidics. This device incorporates some of that technology. The device contains a very thin capillary tube whose inner surface is coated with aluminum oxide. Air is then sucked into the tube. If this air contains any of the various amines produced by decomposition, these molecules will combine with the aluminum oxide. This new amine-aluminum oxide combination can be detected using UV light.

This device is still in the developmental stage but could prove to be a very useful tool for corpse location.


13 responses to “Hand-Held Sniffer and Body Location

  1. Peg Brantley

    August 30, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Ugh. Gotta get my cadaver dog book done!


  2. Jonathan Quist

    August 30, 2010 at 9:48 am


    Wasn’t there a cadaver dog in “Nightmare Before Christmas”?

    Oh, you mean a dog that searches for cadavers, not a dog who _is_ a cadaver!

    Regarding the detector – if the amines combine with the alumina in the detector tube, does that imply the devices would be subject to “sensory overload” in an environment with high levels – or is it a reversible reaction, allowing the device to “clear” itself in the absence of these compounds?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 30, 2010 at 10:40 am

      Not sure how these work yet but typically the microtubes are housed in a replaceable unit. Some are single use and other are multi-use.


  3. Carola Dunn

    August 30, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    I’d rather have a dog.


  4. auntiemwrites

    August 30, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    This is such fascinating stuff. One of my series takes place in the UK; do you know if they are up on this stuff?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 31, 2010 at 6:50 am

      The UK is usually very up to date but one= this I’m not sure since it is so new and as yet unproven.


  5. JoAnn Haberer

    August 30, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    This is a bit off-topic but since these detectors aren’t in use yet, I think it’s still pertinent. When cadaver dogs are used, do the handlers offer the dogs the scent of the missing person (assuming they are looking for a particular victim) such as clothing, or do the dogs simply try to locate the scent of a corpse?
    Thanks! And your blog is great. I learn something new each time.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 31, 2010 at 6:52 am

      They would do that if they were using tracking dogs to find a living person. Cadaver dogs aren’t trained to follow a particular person’s scent but rather to seek out the odors of decomposition.


  6. Pat Marinelli

    August 31, 2010 at 4:57 am

    When I first read the title on this blog entry, I pictured a cadaver dog on a leash, but then I had to go read. What an interesting tool! Now if they could just create one for people who have no sense of smell, life would be perfect!

    Interesting crime tech things to add to our writing.


  7. Heather

    August 31, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    I’m glad I wasn’t born a dog.


  8. Wendy

    September 1, 2010 at 1:57 am

    I am curious, D.P., can this item distinguish between the decomposition compounds of a human being and that of an animal? Now, that is assuming the decomposition compounds of a human being and a dog or cat are comprised of different elements.

    My works are based in Houston. The city & its subburbs have wooded areas, open fields/pastures and a downtown concrete jungle. Much of the area just North of Houston snd it is infested with feral pigs.

    Thank you for posting this article. Hopefully as time flies, more infomation will be released about this product.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      September 1, 2010 at 1:59 pm

      That’s not possible since decaying flesh is decaying flesh. This device simply looks for the molecules released by the decay process. A human, a dog, or a pot roast would release more or less the same chemicals.


      • Jonathan Quist

        September 1, 2010 at 2:35 pm

        At long last, an explanation for my Aunt Esther’s pot roast!



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