The Government Wants A Handheld Synthetic Drug Detector

Alex Malikov/

NIST and DARPA are looking for pre-market products that can identify synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

First responders rushing to the scene of drug overdoses are themselves at risk of exposure to potent chemicals, and a new federal research effort aims to help reduce that risk.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Pentagon’s research arm and development unit are looking for devices that can identify trace amounts of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, a compound about 50 times more potent than heroin.

Employees of civilian and military agencies, including first responders, could use handheld or wearable devices to detect these trace chemicals in a specific package before being exposed to them, NIST and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency solicitation notes.

Trace detection is a challenge, not only because there are many varieties of synthetic opioids similar to fentanyl, but also because particles might be lodged in the surrounding area, increasing the odds of exposure. A single whiff of drugs tainted with fentanyl was enough to send one detective to the hospital, a NIST blog post says.

NIST has been investigating one potential solution, called Ion Mobility Spectrometry, which requires agencies take a swab sample and analyze it in a large scanning instrument roughly the size of a microwave. Those devices can cost about $35,000, according to that NIST post. The solutions NIST and DARPA are looking for include smaller handheld devices.

Other agencies have their own investigations into chemical scanning. Last year, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity launched a program aiming to develop a hand-held remote sensor capable of detecting chemical weapons, narcotics and other harmful particles from up to 100 feet away.

That program is also designed to reduce the risk of exposing law enforcement and first responders to harmful chemicals, and to eliminate the need to enter a swab sample into a separate scanning device.