Chemical detectives: solving mysteries through chemistry

Celebrate National Chemistry Week with our free special article collection on forensic chemistry


A tiny carpet fiber. The pattern of blood droplets on a wall. The chemicals in duct tape.

These can all help detectives decipher a crime scene. Forensic scientists analyze every detail collected at the scene, looking for clues that explain what happened and who was involved.

Chemistry is vital in forensic science. With chemistry, forensic scientists can paint a picture of what happened, sometimes on a molecular level. Chemical analysis can reveal how long ago a person died, which gunshot the fatal bullet, and where the tape that tied them up was manufactured.

For chemical analysis to be useful for solving mysteries, it needs to be based on solid research. To recognize the contribution research makes to this field, National Chemistry Week 2016 focuses on the theme “solving mysteries through chemistry.”

To celebrate, we have curated a collection of articles published in Elsevier’s chemistry journals this year that highlight this contribution. From detecting and analyzing fingerprints to testing paper used in forgeries, these articles give a broad overview of the research that supports forensics. We hope you enjoy reading the collection, which is free to access until January 13, 2017.

Detecting forgeries and fingerprints

When fingerprints have been left for a long time, they can be difficult to detect and analyze. Nanotechnology has led to a wave of new materials that aim to visualize latent fingerprints, by sticking well to the ridges and being easy to detect. In a review in Synthetic Materials, Dr. Adam Leśniewski, a researcher at the Institute of Physical Chemistry, Polish Academy of Sciences, looks at the use of silica-based materials that incorporate nanoparticles and quantum dots, among other substances, as more effective methods to identify latent fingerprints.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ancient pigment could be just as helpful. In a paper in Dyes and Pigments, researchers from Curtin University in Australia propose an ancient dye that can has near-infrared (NIR) luminescence. They demonstrate that the pigment Egyptian blue – the world’s oldest synthetic pigment – enables forensic scientists to detect otherwise invisible latent fingerprints.

Chemical fingerprinting of fuels can reveal fraud that causes significant damage to engines and machinery. Lubricating oil reduces friction and keeps machines running smoothly, but because it is so valuable it is subject to fakery, with people deliberately adulterating it to make money. Using a fingerprinting analysis technique described in the journal Fuel, researchers at Environment Canada characterized new and used lube oils, showing how the method could help identify fraudulent products.

In other cases of fraud, paper analysis can help forensic scientists understand where a forged document originated. In a new study in Journal of Organometallic Chemistry, researchers from Panjab University in India explore the use of a technique called chemometrics to characterize and discriminate paper samples. They characterized 24 paper brands by matching peaks with cellulose and fillers – constituents of paper – and found that the chemometrics could discriminate 99.64 percent of samples.

Special collection: Solving mysteries through chemistry

Read more about these studies and many others in our special collection to celebrate National Chemistry Week 2016. This collection of articles is free to access until January 13, 2017.


Written by

Rob van Daalen

Written by

Rob van Daalen

Rob van Daalen is Senior Publisher for Green, Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at Elsevier, responsible for a portfolio of chemistry journals. He studied Analytical Chemistry and is based in Amsterdam. He has held various positions within Elsevier and has been working as a publisher for 10 years. Rob is the initiator the Green and Sustainable Chemistry Challenge, which is now organized in collaboration with the Elsevier Foundation. He was an Elsevier volunteer for the IMC Weekendschool, which offers extracurricular motivating education to children aged 10 to 14 from underprivileged neighborhoods.


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