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CSI: X-Ray Fingerprints

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (Ivanhoe Broadcast News) -- Popular television crime shows solve cases in an hour. But in real life, cracking a case isn't a quick, easy game -- especially when it comes to finding fingerprints.

...And it was no game when thieves robbed Tatiana Bonilla's home, stealing pricey jewelry. "The police didn't find anything ... It was never solved, and it's been a year," she says.

Police dusted for fingerprints in Bonilla's home, but some fingerprinting techniques can alter a print, erasing valuable clues. Now, chemists have a new, non-invasive way to detect prints -- using X-rays to find chemicals within print patterns.

"You can also get chemical information in addition to the print pattern itself, so you can tell, for instance, that there's some unusual element that's located in that fingerprint," Chris Worley, Ph.D., an analytical chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, tells Ivanhoe.

The process, called micro X-ray fluorescence (MXRF), zaps a print with a tiny X-ray beam that mixes with atoms left behind from sweat or evidence. Next, the atoms give off information, revealing what chemicals are present. Chemicals, like potassium, then form an image of a fingerprint.

"This is a new way of visualizing fingerprints in cases where perhaps we couldn't detect a fingerprint with the traditional methods," Dr. Worley says.

Scientists say the MXRF technique could be used to better track down missing children. Children's fingerprints are more difficult to detect -- the new method could better detect prints based on chemicals left behind in a child's fingerprints due to food, soil or saliva.

Click here to Go Inside This Science or contact:

Christopher G. Worley, Ph.D.
Actinide Analytical Chemistry
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos, New Mexico
(505) 667-2934

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