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Research on new drug extraction method on polymer banknotes underway


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Scientists working to invent faster method as paper bank notes edge closer to becoming obsolete.

Device used to extract traces of drugs

Device used to extract traces of drugs


A pioneering technique to detect traces of drugs on new polymer bank notes seized by police investigating drug crime or money laundering is in the pipeline.

Paper bank notes undergo a process in which they are pressed between two metal plates heated to 280 degrees Celsius, causing drug particles to vaporise into a mass spectrometer, flagging up a list of narcotics.

The rapid process allows a large number of banknotes - approximately ten per minute- to be analysed over a short period of time.

However, polymer bank notes can only withstand half the temperature required and will melt, therefore paper swabs have to be taken instead.

Mass Spec Analytical has been working in conjunction with the Bank of England and UKAS since the launch of the notes in 2016 that is as accurate as the methods used for their paper counterparts.

Police Oracle understands it is currently working on a technique to test the thin plastic notes in the same way as their predecessors by enabling the extraction of drug particles at a lower temperature.

Carl Fletcher, lead scientist at the company, said: “We have the idea of lifting drugs off polymer bank notes without the temperatures, which means there will be no swabs involved and we can do two or three notes at a time. This is going to speed up the analysis making it quicker and beneficial.”

Older methods would including scanning for each drug individually, but Mass Spec's system can simultaneously detect a wide-ranging list of drugs, according to Managing Director Lance Hiley.

“In the past there were two ways of detecting drugs – one would be to take all the notes and put them in a solvent, remove them and then test the solvent for traces of drugs – or to test each bank note individually,” Mr Hiley added.

Over 20 years the company’s robust and accurate methods have so far helped police recover more than £20 million in cash from proceeds of crime cases.

An extensive database has also been built up on paper notes and a rapidly expanding one on polymer notes so experts can determine what levels of drugs -predominantly cocaine - are deemed within a normal range by comparing notes from legal transactions, such as from a casino, to those seized.

Nearly every bank note in circulation is contaminated with tiny amounts - of the order of a billionth of a gram - of cocaine.

Mass Spec’s experts are able to report their opinions as to whether or not the findings from the seized items differ significantly from what is expected in the general population.

In 2007, this closed a legal loophole, meaning criminals cannot blame drugs found on their money on living in a high-crime area.

In the event that significant differences are reported, the court is able to consider how the contamination may have arisen. One obvious possibility being that highly contaminated notes have been closely involved with quantities of drugs.

Trace drugs evidence has been provided by Mass Spec in thousands of successful cases throughout the UK.

According to the Bank of England, polymer banknotes now represent over 30 per cent of the banknotes in circulation in the UK by quantity.

The next £20 note will also be made of polymer and will be issued by 2020.

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