News and events

22 Oct 2012

The Chemistry of Rescue

A team of researchers lead by Paul Thomas, Professor of Analytical Science at Loughborough University is working hard to perfect a machine that helps locating people trapped under debris or rubble.

This fascinating device can act as an “electronic sniffer dog” that searches disaster sites safely and quickly for signs of survivors. It looks for particular chemical signs that are released by the victim when put in such a life threatening situation, with no food or water.

Paul Thomas helps explain this experiment: “As you burn up all the sugar, starch and carbohydrates in your digested food, you then turn to fat burning. You’ll start to live off the fat in your body. When you do that, the signals in your breath change. And the acetone, for example, will increase.”

“So (in a trapped body) we find high acetone levels, CO2 levels, and also high levels of isoprene, a chemical compound generated by cholesterol in your body. And then we also have ammonia, that is associated with urination and sweat, and that comes out through the skin,”

With this knowledge it is possible to use the detector on disaster sites to help find missing people.

Watch the Euronews report about the use of this prototype on a mock up disaster site.