Desi has attracted the attention of both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Naval Research. According to Cooks, no other portable devices can analyze samples and detect picograms of explosives so quickly and easily.
National Academy of Sciences member and mass spectrometer expert J.L. Beauchamp, a professor at the California Institute of Technology (Pasadena), supports the chemistry professor's claim. According to Beauchamp, Cooks' technique solves a number of problems that have prevented mass spectrometry from being deployed for homeland security.
"Desi has solved the problems that, [until now] have made it difficult to detect explosive materials with mass spectrometry," said Beauchamp. "Combined with recent developments in the field, Cooks' group has developed what may be a practical and widely deployable method for detecting and positively identifying not only explosives, but also a wide range of substances that might be employed by terrorist groups."
Tests performed in the lab show that Desi can be improved to test samples even faster in future versions, said Cooks. His group already claims to have used the Desi method in the lab to detect different pharmaceuticals at up to three samples per second.
Earlier this year, Cooks' group announced it was able to detect nano-grams of explosives. To reach the picogram level, however, the spray of reactive chemicals onto a surface, which is used to dislodge suspicious chemicals, had to be combined with the nostrils, which quickly suck samples into tandem spectrometers.
In the future, the group plans to shoehorn the entire device into a backpack-sized unit that weighs less than 25 pounds. In contrast, laboratory mass spectrometers are refrigerator-sized and weigh hundreds of pounds. The group is also designing fail-safe control software for the device, to make sure that it does not give any false alarms even when used by unskilled operators. Such occurrences are the bane of other technologies because security personnel veto any method that causes false alarms.
"No system is flawless, but if we deployed this technology to transportation centers throughout the world, that would make it far more difficult for terrorists to get away with planting bombs where people congregate," said Talaty.
In addition to security applications, Cooks believes the device could be used in the space program in vehicles like the Mars rovers, which need to detect trace amounts of organic chemicals such as amino acids as they search for life. The new instrument would also be useful in biology, since it can detect molecules on the outer surface of living creatures. In one experiment, antihistamine was detected on a person's skin shortly after the individual had ingested an antihistamine tablet.
Cooks' group works under the auspices of Purdue's Bindley Bioscience Center, the Indiana Instrumentation Institute, Inproteo (formerly the Indiana Proteomics Consortium) and the Center for Sensing Science and Technology. Funding was provided, in part, by Inproteo, Prosolia and the Office of Naval Research.