LLNL’s Forensic Science Center (FSC) is home to nationally recognized scientists and capabilities that support chemical, explosive, nuclear, and biological counterterrorism. The FSC delivers critical assessments and technologies to homeland security and intelligence communities, law enforcement, and health professionals. With international certification in handling and analysis of chemical warfare agents, explosives, and radionuclear materials, we collaborate with agencies responsible for monitoring and verifying compliance with international treaties. The Forensic Science Center focuses on the five thrust areas described below. [More about the Forensic Science Center]
To uphold the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty, the
Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
(OPCW) conducts international investigations of
chemical weapon incidents and inspections of suspected
production facilities. The OPCW relies on a small global
network of rigorously accredited laboratories, and the FSC
is just one of two in the U.S. Our work to improve analytical
detection methods and to develop protocols for safely
handling and synthesizing small amounts of chemical
warfare agents has made the FSC critical to global efforts
to eradicate chemical weapons. To retain accreditation,
we are required to maintain ISO-17025 certification and
to participate in OPCW’s annual proficiency tests, which
involve extremely challenging, time-sensitive analyses
While nuclear forensic analysis (NFA) traces its roots back to World War II, the demise of the former Soviet Union and increased radioactivity trafficking on the international black market during the early 1990s led to an expansion and refocus of the discipline. The FSC pioneered those efforts and was instrumental in establishing NFA as an evolving application of general forensic science. Through a 25-year history of novel casework of weapons of mass destruction for law enforcement and intelligence communities, the FSC continues to be the principal U.S. analytic laboratory for questioned items from real-world interdictions of nuclear and radiological contraband.
FSC researchers are frequently called upon by law enforcement groups and government agencies to assist in cases involving compounds that have not been previously identified and whose chemical structure cannot be easily determined. Our expertise in chromatography/mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance, and other advanced spectrometric techniques exploits analytical data to posit chemical structures for these “unknown unknowns.” In-house synthesis experts then generate the suspected material to confirm the proposed chemical structure. These structural elucidation efforts are uncommon in traditional forensic science laboratories but play an ever more critical role in combating illicit drug use, counterfeit pharmaceutical development, and acutely toxic chemical threats.
Through research and development, the FSC aims to maximize forensic information that can be obtained from extremely small biological samples and to eliminate the subjectivity associated with the currently practiced methods of hair analysis. For example, our work in conjunction with LLNL’s Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry has exploited radioactive carbon-14 for determining age and year of death in law enforcement cases involving unidentified human remains. Other novel research within the FSC investigates proteins in hair, skin cells, teeth, and bone to unambiguously identify the human source. This work has the potential to revolutionize the forensic science of human identification.
The FSC frequently encounters new and unexpected challenges in addressing the world’s evolving threat landscape. We have made significant advances not only in detecting chemical warfare agents, but also in determining the method of their synthesis—a field of research known as chemical attribution. Identification of how a chemical agent was made can yield valuable information about who made it and where it may have been synthesized. The FSC has performed chemical attribution studies on a variety of chemical warfare agents, toxic industrial chemicals, illicit drugs, and pharmaceuticals in support of research for intelligence and law enforcement communities.
Our staff are experts in organic, inorganic, analytical, and nuclear chemistry, biological sample analysis, medical countermeasures, microfluidics, and the development of new forensic detection equipment. FSC scientists routinely detect evidence of toxic chemicals at ultra-trace levels using state-ofthe- art analytical instrumentation.
The FSC houses one of the most extensive collections of analytical instrumentation at LLNL including gas, liquid, and ion chromatographs coupled with a variety of mass spectrometers; nuclear magnetic resonance; and infrared and Raman spectrometers.
With leading-edge capabilities, the FSC exploits emerging technologies to increase our understanding of trace compounds of interest and their interaction with complex environmental and biological samples.