Contribution of isotope ratio mass spectrometry to the investigation of improvised explosives: isotopic study of black powders ans ammonium nitrates


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Contribution of isotope ratio mass spectrometry to the investigation of improvised explosives: isotopic study of black powders ans ammonium nitrates
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Science & Justice
Gentile N., Segwolf R.T.W., Delémont O.
5th European Academy of Forensic Science
University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland
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The establishment of legislative rules about explosives in the eighties has reduced the illicit use of military and civilian explosives. However, bomb-makers have rapidly taken advantage of substances easily accessible and intended for licit uses to produce their own explosives. This change in strategy has given rise to an increase of improvised explosive charges, which is moreover assisted by the ease of implementation of the recipes, widely available through open sources. While the nature of the explosive charges has evolved, instrumental methods currently used in routine, although more sensitive than before, have a limited power of discrimination and allow mostly the determination of the chemical nature of the substance. Isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) has been applied to a wide range of forensic materials. Conclusions drawn from the majority of the studies stress its high power of discrimination. Preliminary studies conducted so far on the isotopic analysis of intact explosives (pre-blast) have shown that samples with the same chemical composition and coming from different sources could be differentiated. The measurement of stable isotope ratios appears therefore as a new and remarkable analytical tool for the discrimination or the identification of a substance with a definite source. However, much research is still needed to assess the validity of the results in order to use them either in an operational prospect or in court. Through the isotopic study of black powders and ammonium nitrates, this research aims at evaluating the contribution of isotope ratio mass spectrometry to the investigation of explosives, both from a pre-blast and from a post-blast approach. More specifically, the goal of the research is to provide additional elements necessary to a valid interpretation of the results, when used in explosives investigation. This work includes a fundamental study on the variability of the isotopic profile of black powder and ammonium nitrate in both space and time. On one hand, the inter-variability between manufacturers and, particularly, the intra-variability within a manufacturer has been studied. On the other hand, the stability of the isotopic profile over time has been evaluated through the aging of these substances exposed to different environmental conditions. The second part of this project considers the applicability of this high-precision technology to traces and residues of explosives, taking account of the characteristics specific to the field, including their sampling, a probable isotopic fractionation during the explosion, and the interferences with the matrix of the site.
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