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Fingerprint identification has been used as a key method by law enforcement and forensic experts for over 100 years. Our new method for making invisible fingerprints glow could help the law catch up with the ‘bad guys’.

The challenge

Sometimes conventional fingerprint dusting is not appropriate

Dusting for fingerprints is a common practice at crime scenes. While police and forensics experts use a range of different techniques, sometimes in complex cases evidence needs to be sent off to a lab where heat and vacuum treatment is applied. This can take valuable time, add to cost and impact on investigations.

Our response

Making fingerprints “glow”

Our researchers have devised a new method for finding fingerprints using metal organic framework crystals (MOFs).

CSIRO has come up with a new way to gather fingerprint evidence.

The tiny MOF crystals rapidly bind to fingerprint residue, including proteins, peptides, fatty acids and salts, creating an ultrathin coating that's an exact replica of the pattern. Our researchers tested the method on nonporous surfaces including window and wine glass, metal blades and plastic light switches, with successful results.

By adding a drop of liquid containing crystals to surfaces, investigators using a UV light are able to see invisible fingerprints "glow" in about 30 seconds. As far as we know, it's the first time that these extremely porous MOF crystals have been researched for forensics.

The results

Catching the bad guys

[Music plays, CSIRO logo appears on bottom right hand corner of screen, and text appears:  Scientist takes crime scene investigation into his own hands]    

[Image changes to show person breaking into a house in a suburban street]  

[Image changes to show various images of the intruder searching through drawers and cupboards in the house and placing items into a bag]  

[Image changes to show Dr Kang Liang driving down a street in a car, and then pulling into the driveway of the house]  

[Image changes to show the intruder running out of the back of the house and climbing over a fence] 

[Image changes to show Dr Kang Liang entering the front door of the house] 

Dr Kang Liang:  I came home after a long day at work.  When I walked inside I noticed that the house was in a state.  We had been robbed.  Drawers were wide open with stuff spilling out. 

[Image changes to show Dr Kang Liang walking through the house and discovering the break in] 

Pillows were scattered around.  Of course some of my favourite things were missing.  I called the police. 

[Image changes to show a police forensic officer dusting for fingerprints in various places throughout the house] 

They come to investigate.  The police dusted the area for fingerprints, but didn’t find anything. 

[Image changes to show Dr Kang Liang sitting at a desk reading through a textbook] 

It got me thinking, what if I could apply some of the special materials I’d been working with in the lab to come up with a new, potentially better fingerprinting technique? 

[Image changes to show Dr Kang Liang entering the front door and walking through the house] 

[Image changes to show Dr Kang Liang and text appears on screen:  Dr Kang Liang, Materials Scientist, CSIRO] 

I got solutions containing tiny crystals, and I’m going to show you how police and forensic experts can use these crystals to make fingerprints glow at the scene of the crime. 

[Image changes to show Dr Kang Liang demonstrating how to apply the solution] 

So all we need to do is to take a few drops of solution we developed at CSIRO and we can apply the solution right on the surface where the fingerprints are located, and all we need to do is to wait for 30 seconds and we can shine a blacklight on it, and then we can review a very strong green fluorescent coloured fingerprint pattern. 

[Image changes to show the lamp where the solution has been applied and a green fluorescent fingerprint appears] 

The tiny crystals rapidly bind to a fingerprint residue to create a thin coating that is an exact replica of the pattern. 

[Image change to show Dr Kang Liang holding up the lamp switch and showing the fingerprint revealed] 

Look how the fingerprint glows.[Image changes as the camera zooms in on the fingerprint] 

It works on any nonporous surface such as metal, plastic and glass.  The key advantage is that the crystals grow around the fingerprint in just 30 seconds, and the strong fluorescent effect, it involves higher resolution images to be taken for more precise and better analysis. 

[Image changes to show Dr Kang Liang applying the solution to the lamp switch] 

[Image changes to show a green fluorescent fingerprint appearing]You can imagine using digital technology to take these images and then send them to the database in real time.  

[Image changes back to Dr Kang Liang] 

We hope to work with police and law enforcement agencies to apply this technique so that it’s used in real life crime scene investigations. 

[Image changes back to show Dr Kang Liang holding up the lamp switch with the green fluorescent fingerprint and text appears on screen:  So burglars beware, that’s why you shouldn’t mess with scientists!] 

[CSIRO logo appears with text: Big ideas start here

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Because it works at a molecular level, the method is very precise and lowers the risk of damaging the print. The strong luminescent effect creates greater contrast between the latent print and surface, enabling higher resolution images to be taken for easier and more precise analyses.

The method reduces steps and is done on the spot, which would allow investigators to use a digital device at the scene to capture images of the glowing prints to run through their database in real time.

MOF crystals have a number of benefits in that they are cheap, react quickly and can emit a bright light. The technique doesn't create any dust or fumes, reducing waste and risk of inhalation.

The method could have other valuable applications including new biomedical devices and drug delivery.

CSIRO is now looking to partner with law enforcement agencies to apply the technique. The full research paper can be accessed from Advanced Materials .

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