Archive for August, 2014

‘Smell of dollars’ could catch smugglers: Low Cost Printed Sensors Lead the Way

August 15, 2014

Criminals are smuggling billions in US bank notes into Mexico every year, but help could be on the way for border guards.

A machine that can “smell” dollars – like a sniffer dog senses narcotics – is being developed.

For the first time, chemists have captured the unique fragrance of US paper money.

They announced their discovery at the American Chemical Society meeting.

“Money sniffing is an unknown art. No-one had ever tried to find these aromas,” said Dr Joseph Stetter, of KWJ Engineering.

“We found that US currency emits a wide range of volatile organic compounds that make a ‘fingerprint’ we can identify in less than a minute.”

Daunting challenge

His firm is developing a handheld cash detector for border police, called the Bulk Currency Detection System (BCDS).

In the past fiscal year, US officials seized more than $106m in smuggled cash heading to Mexico – the bulk of it laundered drug money.

But that’s only a whisker of the estimated $39bn that crosses the border undetected every year – hidden in clothing, baggage and vehicles.

Current checks are done by guards with dogs – but training is expensive and time-consuming.

Airport-style X-ray scanners have had some success detecting currency – but they are large and impractical for busy border checkpoints.

To find a swifter solution, the US Department of Homeland Security made a public challenge to scientists to develop “a device that will search for and identify bulk quantities of currency – secreted on persons, in hand baggage and luggage, and/or in privately owned vehicles.”

This money-sniffing machine must pass three intimidating challenges.

First – it must be precise enough to pick up the whiff of dollar bills amid a cacophony of background aromas.

“It has to work even in the presence of car exhaust, perfumes, food, and at a range of temperatures and humidity,” said Dr Suiqiong Li, a researcher at KWJ.

“You need a smart algorithm to sort the needle from the haystack.”

Next – it has to deliver a reading within seconds at hectic border crossings. There is no time to send samples off to a lab.

And finally, the probe has to be portable – light enough for a guard walking up and down a line of people, and flexible enough to reach inside vehicles or shipping containers.

KWJ has already developed sensors for carbon monoxide detectors and alcohol breathalysers – as modelled by their company mascot panda “Sensor Bear”.

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Sniffer backpack

To capture the fragrance of money, they collected one hundred used $1 bills in various states – from crumpled and smelly to crisp and shiny.

They sealed the notes in a chamber and warmed them to release vapours at two temperatures: 24C and 40C.

“We saw tremendous variability and contamination – every one of the notes was different,” said Dr Stetter.

But a signature common to all of the bills was eventually teased out.

It turns out this odour comes from a set of trace chemicals, including aldehydes, furans and organic acids.

“The amounts are tiny – at best a small fraction of a ppm [part per million]. This presents a formidable analytical challenge,” the researchers say.

So does the “smell of dollars” come from the ink? Or the bank note itself? The precise source is not likely to be revealed in a published scientific journal – for security reasons, the researchers say.

But having found the perfume, they now face another daunting technical challenge – building a practical device for border police.

Their design is a backpack with a handheld probe. The pack will house a miniature GC-MS (gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer) of the type already used to detect drugs and explosives.

Ultimately, this could be superseded by an “electronic nose” – a sophisticated sensor array.

To sniff for hidden currency, border guards would pass the probe over clothing or into baggage.

A high-intensity reading would indicate that a large stash of money is concealed.

“You smell like a million dollars” may not be a compliment for much longer.

Sniffing Out Smuggled Money Is About to Get Easier With New Device

August 14, 2014

By Lucy Westcott

Filed: 8/13/14 at 2:01 PM

Sniffing out illegal wads of cash will soon become easier for border patrol guards with the development of a new device that aims to stem the illicit flow of roughly $30 billion in U.S. currency into Mexico every year.

The Bulk Currency Detection System (BCDS) is a device that can smell money by taking a gas sample from wherever officers think the money might be hidden, be on it travelers, in their luggage or stored somewhere in vehicles or shipping containers. Using sensors, the device can analyze samples in less than a minute, researchers say.

“Everyone knows the smell of money, especially fresh money,” Joseph Stetter, principal investigator for the study and president of KWJ Engineering, says. U.S paper money omits unique gases and leave its own “fingerprint,” a result of the ink used in the printing process and the paper the bills are printed on. Money sheds “volatile molecules,” the kind molecules that most easily travel through the air and stick to surfaces, Stetter says.

That distinctive smell of American money will be measured by analyzing molecules using a combination of detection techniques including gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS), a method currently used to detect drugs and explosives. This way, the device will be able to smell and root out illegally large amount of U.S. currency.

“There’s a plausible reason that you can sniff out money if you can measure the chemicals,” Stetter said at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society, where he and his college Suiqiong Li presented their research on the system.

Finding clandestine cash is currently the job of trained sniffer dogs. Stetter hopes BCDS devices will mimic dogs’ sniffing functions and largely replace the specially-trained canines who have the disadvantages of being living, breathing animals that catch colds and need to take “down time” to recover. There’s also the minor issue of communication between dogs and humans, not to mention the fact that, while friendlier than machines, sniffer dogs are costly and take a while to train, Stetter says.

The Department of Homeland Security initially put out a call for ideas for money-smelling devices and KWJ Engineering answered.

“There’s always a societal need and also a practical need. The Department of Homeland Security is interested in securing the borders and one of the things that traverses across the border in packages or backpacks or other carriers is clandestine currency that’s used in illicit trades,” Stettler told. “So to stem the flow of illicit materials across the border, just as they look for guns with X-rays and things like that, they’re looking for a tool they can use to interject.”

There are challenges ahead in the develoment of the BCDS devices. One issue is differentiating between the average wad of bills (you can travel with up to $10,000 in cash before having to declare how much money you’re carrying) and the hundreds of thousands of dollars that get smuggled over the border.

It will take two to three years before the device will be rolled out into a trial period and into the hands of border patrol officers. While there are no devices on show yet and Stetter and his team couldn’t go into too much detail about the technique without “arming the opposition,” he hopes it will be something like a small portable wand that can be waved over material, allowing the flow of travel traffic at airports and ports of entry to keep running smoothly.

“It’s quite a challenge to get the sensors and the sampling system and the algorithm that’s gong to interpret the data all working together seamlessly in a real world environment,” Stetter says.

And while there are no estimates for how much money will be saved by the device, Stetter says the advantages are everywhere.

“It could spill over into other law enforcement, whether you’re looking for meth labs or illicit operations of any kind,” Stetter says.

Low Cost Printed Sensors Sniffing out billions in US currency smuggled across the border to Mexico

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 12, 2014 — Criminals are smuggling an estimated $30 billion in U.S. currency into Mexico each year from the United States, but help could be on the way for border guards,

researchers will report here today. The answer to the problem: a portable device that identifies specific vapors given off by U.S. paper money.

They will present the new research at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society. The meeting features nearly 12,000 reports on new advances in science and other topics. It is being held here through Thursday.

In the past fiscal year, law enforcement officials say they uncovered more than $106 million in smuggled cash headed from the U.S. to Mexico. But this was only a small portion of the billions that made it across the border undetected — hidden among belongings, in clothing or elsewhere. The bulk of that currency is laundered drug money. Travelers crossing the U.S./Mexico border are required to report cash or endorsed checks over $10,000. If they don’t declare larger sums, the money that is found can be seized.

“We’re developing a device that mimics the function of trained dogs ‘sniffing’ out concealed money, but without the drawbacks, such as expensive training, sophisticated operators, down time and communication limitations,” says Suiqiong Li, Ph.D., a member of the research team. “The system would extract gas samples from the traveler or from bags, vehicles and shipping containers. It would detect the trace currency emission signature even in the presence of car exhaust, perfumes, food and a range of temperatures, atmospheric pressures and relative humidity.”

Li says the technique, known as the Bulk Currency Detection System (BCDS), should work effectively within the seconds or few minutes it takes for border inspections. It involves gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS), a widely used analytical technique. Experts already use this method for analyzing vapors to detect drugs and explosives, as well as to investigate the causes of fires and identify unknown compounds. But the current way to uncover smuggled money depends on checks by guards or trained dogs, without the benefit of any devices, according to Li.

The BCDS is being designed to find the emissions signature of the currency despite the presence of strong background gases and contaminants. It would be an automated, hidden-money screening system, using GC/MS plus solid-phase microextraction and a thermal desorption technique. BCDS would automatically extract, preconcentrate and analyze the gases, Li explains.

When developing the device, the researchers first had to figure out which gases money emits and how fast that happens. It turned out that the gases are a set of trace chemicals, including aldehydes, furans and organic acids.

“We have found that U.S. currency emits a wide range of volatile organic compounds that make up a possible ‘fingerprint’ that we can identify in less than a minute,” explains Joseph Stetter, Ph.D., principal investigator for the study. He and Li are with KWJ Engineering, Inc. This is the first report of the feasibility of sampling emission rates with a practical, money-detecting device, he says. To capture the gases, which are specific to U.S. paper money, guards would pass a probe over clothing or into baggage. If the probe detects a high intensity of the gases, it will indicate that a large amount of money likely is present, he says.

The researchers say the device should lead to a significant improvement in detecting smuggled currency and have a strong economic impact for the United States. Stetter estimated that it would take from two to three years to develop the device for use by border guards.

The researchers acknowledge funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Technology Development.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With more than 161,000 members, ACS is the world’s largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

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