‘Using ceramic devices in forensic research is completely new. Together with our partners we explore this exciting potential,’ says Frans Velterop, head of six employees strong company Pervatech BV in Rijssen (Netherlands).

From 1999 Pervatech produces cutting edge ceramic devices, ceramic modules and separation systems, for pervaporation and vapour permeation applications. ‘We use our know-how to design ceramic based solutions for the separation of organic substances,’ says Velterop. ‘The products and services that Pervatech offer enable our customers to innovate their production processes, be it chemical, petro-chemical, pharmaceutical or in food industry.’

Capillary functionality

But not as yet in forensics. Velterop however is convinced the capillary functionality – together with some other excellent characteristics of specialized ceramics – is a strong candidate to become a viable alternative for classic cotton swabs. These are nowadays used in forensic research, as for many years already, for collecting bodily materials on crime scenes, such as: blood, semen, saliva and urine.

Listening ear

Velterop was happy to find a listening ear at Saxion University of Applied Sciences. Dr. Jaap Knotter, as Professor in Forensic Research, and also a member of the Dutch Police Organization, knows from daily practice and from scientific literature that collecting and distracting DNA evidence in a legally correct manner, is still in need of improvement. And indeed of innovation.

‘Especially when a minimum of traces is available, legal prosecution is under threat. Unnecessary!’ he stresses. ‘Because of difficulties to remove the collected DNA from cotton swabs, up to 25% of the swabs is useless.’

Three partners

Developing a robust alternative might add to public safety substantially, as is shared by Dr. Carsten Hohoff as well, head of the Institute for Forensic Genetics. IFG GmbH offers forensic DNA analyses for parentage testing and criminal cases.

The three partners are now working on a feasibility study, to see if the key enabling technology of ceramic devices really is a promising strategy to further enhance public safety in the near future.

Issues to address

‘A combination of issues is addressed in this study,’ says Knotter. First the porous ceramic elements must suit the requirements of the forensic field. Meaning: not to contaminate trace material in any way; to show perfect absorption properties; and also to release all absorbed material without changing it chemically.

Further: an ideal shape, holder and configuration of the tool has to be thought of already in this early stage of research. ‘The packaging must meet the very same requirements as do the conventional swab collectors,’ Knotter says. ‘And, we have to make sure that price per piece can reach reasonable levels when mass production comes within reach.’

Knotter also mentions extra attention to be given to the total chain of custody and evidence. At last leaks and destruction and/or chemical interaction, should be avoided. ‘Apart from these technical issues, the challenge for using the newly developed product for forensic purposes will be legislation,’ Knotter says. ‘But when police work finally will become more effective and efficient, the contribution to public safety is indisputable.’

Potential

Pervatech leader Frans Velterop shares this cautiously optimistic view. ‘From year-long experience and knowledge growth of various ceramic materials and applications, I know its potential,’ he says. ‘Apart from crime scene analyses, I believe ceramic devices using capillary functionality can be useful in the medical field as well. For example regarding pickup/storage and safe transportation of all kinds of bodily fluids. And in forensics: all types of forensic fluids can be picked up, not only biological. For example, chemicals, oil traces and complex fluids.’

Innovation project

Knotter is highly motivated to bring the project one step further, and submit the subject to a Rocket innovation project proposal. ‘We plan to strengthen our project team,’ he says. ‘Deventer hospital (Microbiology Department) is interested in using this enabling technology for bacteria and virus-related research, showing its potential outside the forensics field.’

At the University of Twente (MESA+ Institution), the Mesoscale Chemical Systems Group, led by Professor Han Gardeniers, has shown interest, to further investigate another promising feature of ceramic swabs. Knotter: ‘Lab-on-a-chip technology analyses could be realized on the spot. Quick DNA analyses, for example, could be crucial to exclude suspects – or family members – from prosecution in an early stage, thus improving jurisdiction procedures considerably.’