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Fingerprinting breakthrough spawns corrosion detector

05 November, 2010

A pioneering technique for detecting fingerprints on bullet casings has been adapted to measure corrosion on machine parts by the scientist who developed the technique, Dr John Bond of Leicester University in the UK.

Dr Bond’s technique for identifying fingerprints on brass bullet-casings, even after they have been wiped clean, is based on the minuscule amounts of corrosion which can be caused by sweat. The development, announced in 2008, was cited as one of the technologies “most likely to change the world” by a panel of experts for BBC Focus magazine, while Time magazine included it in its “50 best inventions of the year”.

Now, working with scientists in the University’s Department of Chemistry, Dr Bond has used the same technique to produce a simple, handheld device which can measure corrosion on machine parts.

“This is a new, quick, cheap and easy way of measuring the extent of corrosion on copper and copper-based alloys, such as brass,” explains Dr Bond (above), who is an honorary research fellow in the University’s Forensic Research Centre, as well as being scientific support manager at Northamptonshire Police.

“It works by exploiting the discovery we made during the fingerprint research – that the corrosion on brass forms something called a Schottky barrier – and we use this to see how much the metal has corroded. Such measurements can be made already, but this is quick, cheap and easy, and can be performed in the field as it works off a 9V battery.

“Measuring the corrosion of metals such as brass is important to ensure that machinery does not operate outside its safe limits,” Bond points out. “This could be anything from checking that a water pipe will not burst open, to ensuring that the metal on an airplane is not corroded.

“Also, rather than simply saying that the brass is corroding (as a technique such as weighing the brass would), this technique enables the type of corrosion to be determined – for example, copper oxide or zinc oxide corrosion.” This gives clues about how severe the corrosion is. 

The system does not need any setting up, and works simply by touching the metal with a probe. “It`s as easy as taking your temperature with a thermometer,” says Bond.

A description of the prototype device has been published in the journal Review of Scientific Instruments. Dr Bond and his colleagues are now looking for a company to market the device.

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