The landscape of the illegal drug trade changes constantly, particularly amid the current opioid crisis. Law-enforcement officers regularly find or confiscate pills, powders, and other substances and need to know their composition as quickly as possible to determine legal charges and sometimes to issue lifesaving warnings.
Carfentanil is a case in point. This cousin to fentanyl has emerged on the nation’s streets in recent years to the alarm of law and public health officials, and with good reason. It is estimated to be 10,000 times stronger than morphine, and even a few crystals can cause a deadly overdose. If officers suspect carfentanil-laced cocaine or heroin is being sold, they rush to verify it so they can spread the word on the street.
The problem, though, is that often government labs are backed up and getting test results can take a considerable amount of time.
Now, researchers in the lab of George Whitesides, the Woodward L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, have designed a promising new tool that can identify smaller concentrations of drug powders than almost any other field-testing device. Portable, simple to use, and cost-effective, the technology could provide law-enforcement officers and forensic chemists a quick and accurate way to identify potentially dangerous substances.
In a paper published Tuesday in the journal Angewandte Chemie, postdoctoral scholars Christoffer Abrahamsson and Michael Fink describe how Magneto-Archimedes levitation separates substances based on density. Their thermos-sized MagLev device has two brick-like magnets above and below a retractable, clear container. Inside, a magnetic gasoline-like solution made from something called a gadolinium chelate complex pushes foreign objects — bubbles, sugar, or heroin — into layers of neat, identifiable clouds. “If the liquid wants to be as close as possible to the magnets,” said Fink, “then the other stuff has to get out of the way.”
This upward-and-downward jostling, combined with gravity, forces each substance to float at a height corresponding to its density. “Try to shake a glass of honey and then watch the air bubbles rise,” said Fink. “Sometimes they just stay put.” To isolate fentanyl, a powder as fine as confectioner’s sugar, they invented a new chelate complex, capable of separating substances with far wider ranges of densities.