CSI in Real Life – How Modern Forensics Identifies Unknown Substances

Television shows featuring in-depth crime analysis have become incredibly popular. No longer are the detectives who apprehend criminals the sole heroes of crime dramas. Now, the behind-the-scenes scientists who help to identify these criminals have been pushed into the spotlight and onto our television screens.

Americans are certainly fascinated with how forensics works and the seemingly minute details that can make or break a crime scene investigation. But is real-life at all similar to what plays out on the small screen in shows like CSI?

Modern science has made extreme leaps in terms of forensics in recent years. New chemical analysis processes can in fact identify mere traces of unknown substances. When coupled with advances in DNA identification, forensic scientists are able to play a key role in determining the who and the how of crime scenes.

Forensic scientists rely on highly-technical materials analysis processes in order to turn the seemingly minute details into hard and fast evidence that plays a major role in criminal cases. One such process is known as Fourier Transform – Infrared Spectroscopy, or FTIR.

FTIR is mainly utilized for identifying organic compounds, though it can in some cases also identify inorganic materials. Essentially, FTIR measures the frequency of wavelengths in the infrared spectrum that are absorbed by a given material. This frequency is usually measured in wavenumbers.

The specific absorption bands of organic materials can be used to identify the functional groups present in a compound and can be compared to existing reference spectra of known substances to identify the material.

With the ability of FTIR to identify something as small as a human hair, FTIR is extremely useful for identifying trace amounts of substances found at a crime scene to determine what, and who, was there. However FTIR also has uses outside of the realm of crime scene investigation.

Commercial laboratories like Innovatech Labs provide FTIR services to clients looking to identify potential product contaminants, or the levels of a specific organic compound present in a given material. This use of FTIR helps companies maintain and ensure the integrity of the products they put on the market.

From crime scene analysis to contamination identification, the science behind popular television crime dramas impacts our lives every day.