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NIU chemistry professor gets $628,000 grant to develop new method of lifting fingerprints

May 21, 2018

Chemistry and Biochemistry professor Oliver Hofstetter

Crime scene investigators might someday get help from technology being developed by a Northern Illinois University professor and initially tested on campus by his student researchers.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has awarded a grant of more than $628,000 over two years to NIU Chemistry and Biochemistry professor Oliver Hofstetter to support his efforts to develop new user-friendly techniques and devices for recovering and visualizing invisible fingerprints in standard police work or covert operations.

NIJ is the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Hofstetter is collaborating with scientists at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Western Sydney University (WSU) in Australia, where formal testing will be conducted on the “next-generation fingermark lifters” and “on-the-spot visualization devices.” Hofstetter’s team of scientists is receiving advice and support of its efforts from several law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service and Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Ph.D. student Andrei Mlakar works in the lab alongside Chemistry and Biochemistry professor Oliver Hofstetter.

Natural oils and sweat from the skin can leave behind invisible, or latent, fingerprints. Detecting these prints typically requires the use of powders, chemicals or alternate light sources. Different types of tapes and casts can be used to “lift” prints from a scene so they can be taken back to a laboratory to be viewed and analyzed.

Current techniques require time and expertise to implement and/or leave a visible record of their application, making them unsuitable during deployment at rapid-response scenes or for covert detection during intelligence operations.

“Developing lifters with the ability to immediately see and record a fingerprint is a complicated task for many reasons,” Hofstetter says. “The materials deposited with a fingerprint are minute in amount and concentration.

“We’re developing devices that would allow you to lift a print at a crime scene and then visualize it instantaneously in color, either in natural light or with use of an ultraviolet light source,” he adds. “The devices we’re developing are also very versatile.”

The techniques under development aim to lift prints from a variety of surfaces, from metal and glass to more challenging porous surfaces such as paper and banknotes. Additionally, the methods would allow fingerprints to be recovered without disturbing a crime scene.

Hofstetter and his Australian colleagues have been working to develop improved fingermark detection methods for nearly a decade and have raised about $1.4 million in the last five years alone. Recently, Hofstetter simplified his approach with promising results.

“I got an idea and had some of my student researchers test it in our lab,” says Hofstetter, whose students often actively take part in his laboratory research efforts. “It worked like a charm.”

The new techniques and devices will be evaluated in laboratory settings and then tested at the UTS and WSU forensic crime scene simulation labs.