Does Smuggled Money Smell?
Aug 29 2014 Comments 0
Smuggled money is a big problem in countries such as the United States, where it is estimated that around $30 billion is smuggled into Mexico every year. Last year, a mere fraction of this estimated figure - $106 million – was seized by overrun border police, the majority of which is thought to be laundered drug money. However, the sheer volume of border crossings which take place on a daily basis mean that the traditional method of locating the contraband money, through sniffer dogs, is an unfeasible uphill battle for border control.
However, the pooches’ days of working border crossings may be numbered, as technological breakthroughs threaten to put the sniffer-pups out of work. These breakthroughs have come in the form of the successful identification of the “smell” of money, alongside the development of a device which is able to detect such a smell.
How Were These Breakthroughs Achieved?
Through a scientific technique known as chromatography. Chromatography works to break down a compound into its various components by converting a liquid or solid into gaseous form and analysing the process. From this data, researchers are able to extrapolate data about the constitutional makeup of the substance in question. The specific branch of chromatography applied to the identification of the odour of money is called gas chromatography – mass spectrometry (GC-MS). To learn more about the mechanics of the process, see the article: An Introduction into the Role of Gas Chromatography - Mass Spectometry (GC-MS) in Metabolomic Analysis.
To go about identifying the unique smell of the cash, researchers took one hundred $1 bills of varying age, quality and origin and heated them to the temperatures of 24° and 40°, in order to release certain vapours. From these vapours, they were able to identify a trademark signature scent that was common to all of the various bills.
Next, they had to employ this information by creating a machine that was capable of detecting the odour. This machine would not only have to cope with a huge variety of background odours, from food smells to perfume to beauty products, but also to identify the odour in a timely and efficient manner. As well as satisfying the time restraints associated with a hectic border crossing, the device would also have to be portable enough to be able to be carried by a guard and flexible enough to be inserted into baggage to detect the contraband.
A prototype backpack, with attached probe, is currently in the process of being trialled. Such a development is not the first time technology has attempted to replace sniffer dogs – two years ago a device capable of detecting explosive substances in baggage was developed by researchers at the University of California. To read more about it, check out the story Dogs' Snouts Mimicked by Nanotechnology to Sniff out Bombs.
While canine sniffers remain the best method of detection currently available to us, they are liable to fatigue and distraction, not to mention the training, skills and expense required in their development. If the artificial replacement can be developed on a widespread scale, the pooches could be receiving early retirement and spending more time dreaming about chasing rabbits rather than nosing about in your luggage.
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