Drug-sniffing chips are 'huge deal' for law enforcement

May 15, 2018

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn says new research at the University at Buffalo is a "huge deal" in developing a computer chip that could eventually be used to build the illegal drug equivalent of the breathalyzer.

Right now, if a police officer pulls over a driver for erratic behavior, there are a panoply of laws and court decisions controlling what happens. If the handheld breathalyzer does not show alcohol, the officer can let the driver go or call in expensively trained officers who can study the driver's behavior and decide if there are enough signs of drugs to request a blood test.

Research led by electrical engineering Associate Professor Qiaoqiang Gan uses nanotechnology to build a computer chip that can sense drugs, perhaps in the driver's breath. Gan says the chip and the research he is doing with graduate student Nan Zhang on nanophotonic materials is aimed at building a platform to test for all sorts of things.

Associate Professor Qiaoqiang Gan
Credit University at Buffalo

"The way we explore those fundamental features of these nano materials, usually we have to think about what is applications," Gan says. "Therefore, when we develop some nano structures, I kept thinking of what is the new application. That's why we started to move into the application area. So sensing, drug sensing, chemical sensing is our target."

Gan is getting a lot of interest from companies that want to commercialize the technology. DA Flynn says the small device that could potentially be designed and put in the field for police is seriously needed right now as the legalization of marijuana becomes more common around the country. He says New York State will inevitably follow the trend, meaning more people stoned behind the wheel.

"You're going to have either officers who are experts in drug detection or some mechanism to be able to tell if, in fact, someone is driving under the influence of marijuana," says Flynn, "and this chip right here could be the potential answer to that question."

Gan says the underlying technology could be used in a variety of sensors for everything from cocaine to polluted water.