Fast and Sensitive Analysis and Detection of Illicit Drugs

Fast and Sensitive Analysis and Detection of Illicit Drugs

Image Credit: TOFWERK

Chemical analysis of illegal drugs using the Vocus TOF mass spectrometer identifies the origin and purity of samples in real time and with no requirement for sample preparation.

The goal of forensic chemical investigation of illegal drugs is to establish whether a substance revoked by legal forces comprises an illicit compound, and if so, seeks to determine its purity and preferably origin.

Relevant evidence for the courts and law enforcement is found through confirmatory tests which clearly determine the potential drug and related impurities in order to seek criminal charges and to specify sentencing.

A number of drugs incorporate distinct impurities during the manufacturing process, or include compounds that are deliberately added as a means to optimize or change impact of the drug. The discovery of these compounds is a clue that assists law enforcement in locating the suppliers of raw ingredients and finding the distributors.

Fast and sensitive detection of trace cocaine vapor

Samples are directly and non-destructively analyzed in real time utilizing the TOFWERK Vocus TOF mass spectrometer. Sample preparation is also not required for the measurement. Figure 1 provides an example of a Vocus measurement.  

A regional Department of Police and Customs supplied small quantities of seized cocaine secured inside a plastic bag for the investigation. The bag was simply opened and positioned in front of the instrument inlet for several seconds.  

While this investigation was performed in a non-laboratory, chemically-complex environment (a garage with significant quantities of gasoline and additional fumes), the cocaine molecule (identified as C17H21NO3·H+) is easily seen as sharp enhancements above background that relate to pulses of vapor from the bag.

The instrument’s high resolving power allows for the visible differentiation of the cocaine molecule from the number of different VOCs found in the garage.

Vocus TOF analysis of confiscated cocaine. A small bag containing cocaine was opened several times in front of the instrument inlet. Enhancement of the cocaine molecule at ppt levels is observed. The high resolving power of the instrument (Vocus S, dm/m=6000) allows the unambiguous measurement and identification of the peak at m/Q 304 C17H21NO4·H+.

Figure 1. Vocus TOF analysis of confiscated cocaine. A small bag containing cocaine was opened several times in front of the instrument inlet. Enhancement of the cocaine molecule at ppt levels is observed. The high resolving power of the instrument (Vocus S, dm/m=6000) allows the unambiguous measurement and identification of the peak at m/Q 304 C17H21NO4·H+. Image Credit: TOFWERK.

Fingerprint analysis of methamphetamine

Users can generally predict the response of the Vocus TOF to any molecule so no database is required to make a first-order evaluation of whether particular drugs are present. However, illegal drugs are chemically complex compounds that comprise additional substances along with the active ingredient.

Over 90% of a confiscated sample can contain particular adulterants, remaining contaminants from the synthesis, and filler material.

These mixtures are frequently volatile and are found in greater amounts than the drug alone. They can be simply identified by the Vocus TOF directly in the gas phase where the user can acquire a chemical fingerprint exclusive to each drug sample.

These fingerprints vary depending on the method of synthesis, handling, storage, and drug purity. Comparing the identified impurities to impurities noted in scientific literature or to a database can offer further data.

For example, methamphetamine’s synthetic origin can be found by evaluating the impurities. Illegal methamphetamine is usually produced using one of six chemical formulations, each of which has typical byproducts1.

Figure 2 presents the Vocus quantification of seized methamphetamine. Along with the methamphetamine molecule itself, different substances determined as known byproducts of methamphetamine production were identified. The impurities were more plentiful in this sample than methamphetamine itself.

Forensic analysis of methamphetamine. A bag containing a small amount of confiscated methamphetamine (C10H15N) was opened three times in front of the Vocus sampling inlet. The panel on the left shows the detected concentration of methamphetamine (black) and other vapors as the bag is opened. The elemental composition of these vapors is provided by the high resolving power, and the chemical identities on the right were determined by a comparison with known impurities described in scientific literature.

Figure 2. Forensic analysis of methamphetamine. A bag containing a small amount of confiscated methamphetamine (C10H15N) was opened three times in front of the Vocus sampling inlet. The panel on the left shows the detected concentration of methamphetamine (black) and other vapors as the bag is opened. The elemental composition of these vapors is provided by the high resolving power, and the chemical identities on the right were determined by a comparison with known impurities described in scientific literature. Image Credit: TOFWERK.

As the entire mass spectrum is quantified at the same time, isotope patterns can be utilized to verify the elemental make-up of the identified substances, particularly for rare molecules like chloroephedrine (C10H15NCl).

The presence of chloroephedrine and 1,2-dimethyl-3-phenylaziridine are typical markers of the Emde synthetic method2 (Figure 3).

Emde synthetic pathway. The presence of 1,2-dimethyl-3-phenylaziridine and chloroephedrine in the sample are indicative markers of the Emde synthetic method.

Figure 3. Emde synthetic pathway. The presence of 1,2-dimethyl-3-phenylaziridine and chloroephedrine in the sample are indicative markers of the Emde synthetic method. Image Credit: TOFWERK.

References and further reading

  1. Des and Ismail, Impurity Profiling of Amphetamine and Methamphetamine Using Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GCMS) Harmonized Methods, Sains Malaysiana, 46 (1), 149-156, 2017.
  2. Ko et al., The impurity characteristics of methamphetamine synthesized by Emde and Nagai method, Forensic Science International, 170 (2-3), 142-147, 2007.

Acknowledgments

Produced from materials originally authored by Abigail Koss and Veronika Pospisilova from TOFWERK.

About TOFWERK

TOFWERK is a global leader in time-of-flight mass spectrometry, delivering sensitive instruments for laboratory, industrial, and field analyses. Our customers’ interests range from materials science and geochemistry to metabolomics and trace-gas
measurements.

TOFWERK engineers and scientists collaborate with research laboratories and OEM customers to develop custom MS solutions based on our modular design platform. This platform enables rapid design and manufacturing of novel instrumentation for research laboratories and OEM customers.

Our end-user product line includes the icpTOF, Vocus PTR-TOF, IMS-TOF, and EI-TOF for GC. These mass spectrometers bring the speed and sensitivity of TOFMS to many disciplines and sample types.


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Last updated: Apr 14, 2020 at 9:05 AM

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