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How to buy a handheld Raman spectrometer

Raman technology is a powerful field tool; here are six things a cop needs to know before purchasing a Raman instrument


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Portable, handheld spectroscopy devices can provide a safer and much more conclusive way of testing unidentified substances on scene. Raman detection is a highly-accurate nondestructive technique that can be used with little or no sample preparation. In some cases, this can be achieved without removing the sample from its original container, like plastics, bottles and other translucent packaging materials.

As these devices don’t require officers to touch samples, it reduces the risk of potential exposure. The devices can also definitively identify even tiny amounts of unknown substances, providing evidentiary documentation to be used in court.

Once the sample is processed, the output of the Raman instrument is used to look through a database of substances. Think of this as looking up a new word in a dictionary. You have all of the letters in the right order and you just need to know what it means.

Portable, handheld spectroscopy devices can provide a safer and much more conclusive way of testing unidentified substances on scene. (Photo/WikiCommons)
Portable, handheld spectroscopy devices can provide a safer and much more conclusive way of testing unidentified substances on scene. (Photo/WikiCommons)

If the sample is a street drug you can make an arrest. If it is an explosive, it’s time to call in the hazmat or bomb disposal team. If fentanyl comes up, it might be time to grab your Narcan kit or lay on some additional personal protective equipment.

6 questions to ask before purchasing a Raman spectrometer

Ramen technology is a powerful field tool. Here are six things a cop needs to know before purchasing a Raman instrument:

1. Is the device from a recognized manufacturer who will provide support when you need assistance?

The quality of customer service and the depth of technical support available should be integral to your decision on which Raman device to purchase. Ramen devices are a powerful tool, but only in trained hands, so find out what kind of training the manufacturer offers.

2. What substance libraries and support software are available for the device?

Even in trained hands, a Ramen device is only as good as its reference material. This means that you need to have powerful software that can search against an extensive, updatable substance library. If your sample is a mixture, the software should be able to let you filter out what you don’t care about and isolate what is important.

3. Can new substances be added to the library?

If you want to add a completely new synthetic street drug, explosive mix, or a different “dealer cut” to the library, do you need to send the device back to the manufacturer or use an expensive programmer? If a new software version or updated library is released, will it erase any local substances that were entered by your agency?

4. What frequency laser does the device use?

Some frequencies are better than others for specific tasks. The traditional near infrared 785-nm laser, while great at detecting small amounts of fentanyl, cutting agents, precursors and binding agents, has some problems when the unknown substance or its container has strong fluorescence. A 1064-nm laser can help cops identify materials such as the blue pill form of ecstasy, some forms of heroin, and they work with a much broader range of packaging. The decision will be based on what you expect to encounter in your jurisdiction.

5. How is it powered?

Does it use standard or proprietary rechargeable or disposable batteries? Can the battery be replaced in the field or is it permanently installed like an iPhone? Does the device need a special charger, or can you plug it in to a USB or 12v car outlet?

6. Does the device explicitly identify the unknown substance(s), or is it more subjective, like reading a polygraph?

Cops using a Raman spectrograph in the field to ID an unknown substance may need to make a quick decision for their own and the public’s safety.

Summary

Before you buy a Raman instrument, you need to know whether it will be used to identify street drugs, explosives, unknown substances or all of the above. Ask questions about the substance library and software available for it, and how they are updated.

Take your time to determine your requirements and research what is available before you start writing your grant proposal or cut a purchase order.

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