It’s no secret that stink is science cooking and so chemist Megan Harries, a postdoctoral fellow and chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), attempts to explore just that by measuring the chemicals that give a decomposing corpse its distinctive smell--these chemicals are drops of putrescine and cadaverine placed in glass vials.
What is the stench of death?
When Harries returned a day later after storing the vials in a shipping container, she unraveled the vials where the vapors have now diffused and began drilling a hole in the side of the container.
From NIST.GOV: The PLOT-cryo device can be used to detect very low concentrations of airborne chemicals such as those that might signal the presence of spoiled food, clandestine graves, and chemicals in fire debris that might show evidence of arson. Image Credit: Courtesy of Megan Harries
Harries was now the first to conduct a field test using high-tech sniffing device known as PLOT-cryo to help her detect the stench of death. Using PLOT-cryo, the results were positive for putrescine and cadaverine which were originally bought form a chemical supplier, in what Harries refers to these chemicals as the “decomposition suite of compounds”.
From NIST.GOV: NIST chemist Megan Harries tests whether a portable, high-tech sniffing device called a PLOT-cryo system can be used to screen shipping containers for dangerous airborne chemicals at ports of entry. For this test, which was performed at the NIST campus in Boulder, Colorado, Harries used an old U.S. Army communications bunker as a stand-in for a shipping container. Image Credit: Courtesy of Megan Harries
PLOT-cryo was developed by NIST detected tiny concentrations of chemicals in the air and is explained in the study published in Forensic Chemistry.
Harries was then curious to see if PLOT-cryo, short for “porous layer open tubular cryogenic adsorption”, would safely screen shipping containers for dangerous and illegal cargo. “We chose those chemical mixtures as surrogates for things that law enforcement might care about,” she explained.
The device can also advance public heath and human safety. “It was good at detecting some very hard-to-detect stuff,” Harries said. “We’re close to solving an important problem.”