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Mass Spectrometry in Forensics: Definition & Uses

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  • 0:03 Small Samples, Big Results
  • 1:09 Applications to Forensics
  • 2:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Dissecting a crime scene is tedious work. Evidence is often of unknown origin or material and may be microscopic in size. Mass spectrometry allows for analysis of such evidence and can identify the substance, its components, and sometimes its source.

Small Samples, Big Results

You are probably aware that everything is made of matter. Matter is the 'stuff' of us, and the different types of matter make up different things like rocks, water, plants, animals, etc. From the outside it is often easy to tell what something is made of. It's like looking at all of the pieces of a puzzle put together. But what if you've only got one piece? How can you tell what something is when you don't have the entire picture?

A mass spectrometer can help you here, because this machine identifies a substance's molecular makeup from its mass and charge. How does it do this? Well, the material is ionized inside the machine, which means that ions (charged particles) are produced from the substance. Using both electric and magnetic fields, the mass spectrometer can determine both the identity of the substance and its components from the mass of those charge particles. So if you don't have the entire object you want to identify but you have even a very small piece of it, you may still be able to find out what that piece came from using this technology.

Applications to Forensics

As you can imagine, mass spectrometry can be very useful, especially in the field of forensic analysis. For example, toxins, poisons, and medications can be identified from human tissue with mass spectrometry. Not only that, but the time of death, dose of the toxin, and even whether this was a drug that was regularly in the person's system (such as recreational street drugs or prescriptions) can also be determined.

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