It started with a print.
A serendipitous discovery made here, in our Chemistry labs, is set to revolutionise forensic science.
The cutting-edge chemical vapour fuming process provides unrivalled fingerprint development capabilities – including on problematic items previously considered too difficult to retrieve usable prints from.
Figures released in July by the Office for National Statistics revealed that recorded crime in England and Wales rose in the year to March 2019, including increases in knife crime, robbery, firearms and public order offences.
Meanwhile – according to Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick – “too many crimes are being left unsolved”.
Home Office statistics suggest a range of reasons for this. One highlighted problem is that in 45.7% of offences, no suspect was identified.
Conventional fingerprint recovery systems struggle to retrieve usable prints from surfaces damaged in some way – spent bullet cartridges and IED fragments – and items washed clean or submerged for an extended period.
Our work on the technology, now known as RECOVER, started a decade ago – as a chance discovery. A team of our inorganic chemists noticed fingerprints developing on glassware exposed to the fumes created by the process they were running.
Realising the significance of what they had discovered, they published their findings, attracting the attention of the Centre for Applied Science and Technology (CAST – now part of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, DSTL).
By 2017, a collaboration – comprising the University, CAST, DSTL and global forensic manufacturers Foster & Freeman Ltd (F&F) – was developing the game-changing technology for the security marketplace.
RECOVER was commercially launched in late 2018.
How RECOVER works
The device is effectively a low-maintenance compact laboratory.
A precursor chemical is heated, and the resulting vapour interacts with surfaces to reveal the latent fingerprints.
The user-friendly software makes the complex chemistry behind the technique a simple one-step process.
And, because it is a fuming process, even the minute gap between sides of folded metal can be accessed, revealing prints from the inner surfaces.
The images drawn from the prints are high resolution, revealing tiny details including pores in the skin – significantly advancing print-matching and identification.
RECOVER has generated great interest amongst the security sector, and some units are now in place, playing their part in forensic investigations.