Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Forensic Science Center interdisciplinary experts anticipate, detect, and respond to a vast spectrum of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives (CBRNE) threats.

A Rich Analytical History


Prior to the Forensic Science Center (FSC)’s formal establishment in the early 1990s, Livermore scientists had a long-standing practice of conducting critical forensic analyses of nuclear and radiological materials from the nuclear testing era. Years later, the FSC broadened its original focus to include analysis of toxic chemical threats—a primary hub of the center’s current work. With its recent expansion into biological forensic analysis, the FSC has an unrivaled ability to safely handle, characterize, and counteract the entire spectrum of CBRNE threats.

Assessing the Nuclear Threat

The FSC has created organometallic catalysts that caneffectively decontaminate toxic chemicals and transformthem into nontoxic byproducts.

The FSC has created organometallic catalysts that can effectively decontaminate toxic chemicals and transform them into nontoxic byproducts.

Worldwide, FSC scientists are among the leaders in nuclear forensics—the chemical, isotopic, and morphological analysis of interdicted illicit nuclear or radioactive materials. Nuclear forensic work at Livermore, which began in the late 1980s as an outgrowth of the nuclear testing program, takes advantage of the FSC’s capabilities to decontaminate paper, hair, fibers, chemical explosives, and other conventional evidence from crime scenes for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other government agencies. As part of Livermore’s national security mission, FSC staff play a primary role in international efforts to develop new forensic methods aimed at discouraging the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. By combining evidence taken from points along the materials’ suspected transit route, nuclear forensic analysis is a highly multidisciplinary endeavor, requiring expertise in nuclear science, physics, chemistry, isotope geochemistry, biology, engineering, materials science, metallurgy, statistical analysis, and other scientific fields.

Remediation and Restoration

To remediate the effects of CBRNE threats, forensic scientists must understand how these hazards behave in their immediate surroundings and the greater environment. The FSC engages in mitigation activities such as measuring and predicting exposure, characterizing exposure events, decontaminating affected areas, and minimizing the spread of contaminants. The more FSC scientists can characterize a specific threat, the more effectively first responders can restore exposed areas. The FSC’s expertise in synthetic and organic chemistry underpins its decontamination efforts. For example, one research area is aimed at finding an alternative to the standard practice of decontaminating and degrading chemical warfare agents using bleach. Although bleach has been used in decontamination protocols for decades, the chemical is toxic, presents environmental hazards, and can corrode surrounding structures. FSC scientists have already developed zinc-amine complexes to degrade phosphorus-containing pesticides. Several such complexes are highly effective at performing catalytic hydrolysis of the pesticide paraoxon into nontoxic byproducts, indicating they could be applied to target persistent organophosphorus nerve agents such as VX.

Protecting the Food Supply

Maintaining a fraud- and adulteration-free food supply isa critical part of food safety.

Maintaining a fraud- and adulteration-free food supply is a critical part of food safety.

Since food is essential to life, the integrity of the food supply is of utmost importance. While safety and quality are routinely monitored and assessed by the food industry, fraud (covert substitution of lower quality or potentially harmful ingredients for economic gain) and adulteration (the addition of dangerous substances to food) are more difficult to address. As fraud and adulteration have been estimated to cost the food industry $560 billion per year, there is a need for surveillance programs that can detect and identify unknown contaminant(s) in food.

Through the FSC’s work for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and other public and private partners, the center has developed strategies to analyze samples with unknown contaminants using various techniques. The FSC’s partnership with major food and beverage conglomerate Mars, Inc., has demonstrated that forensic strategies originally developed for chemical warfare agents can be successfully applied to developing model food characterization protocols, thereby providing the foundation for a robust and proactive food surveillance program.

Developing Countermeasures for the Central Nervous System

This image shows the enzyme acetylcholinesterase containing a Serine 203 amino acid adducted to sarin (Ser-203-Sarin), a deadly nerve agent. When the small molecule LLNL-02 binds to acetylcholinesterase, the adducted sarinis clipped off the enzyme. This action reverses the effects of the nerve agent and restores proper functioning ofacetylcholinesterase—potentially saving a person’s life.

This image shows the enzyme acetylcholinesterase containing a Serine 203 amino acid adducted to sarin (Ser-203- Sarin), a deadly nerve agent. When the small molecule LLNL-02 binds to acetylcholinesterase, the adducted sarin is clipped off the enzyme. This action reverses the effects of the nerve agent and restores proper functioning of acetylcholinesterase—potentially saving a person’s life.

Traditional countermeasures against the physiological effects of nerve agents work effectively on the peripheral nervous system. However, countermeasures are also needed that mitigate the impact of nerve agents on the central nervous system. Traditional drugs such as 2-PAM and Obidoxime cannot cross the blood–brain barrier (BBB), and thus they do not protect the central nervous system. To address this issue, FSC scientists have developed oxime, known as LLNL-02, a small molecule that has shown promising in vitro results indicating significant BBB penetration. Furthermore, this penetration has been demonstrated in vivo using guinea pigs.

Defeating Biological Agents

For more than a decade, the FSC has overseen Engaged Match, a program for the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command that develops tools to defeat bacterial pathogens. These tools (such as novel antimicrobial agents and better products for warfighter protection) are passed on to end users, while the FSC’s innovative computational tools and algorithms give both the research and intelligence communities access to information that helps them understand how organisms become pathogenic. For example, FSC staff have developed an algorithm for microbial virus gene annotation to assist scientists in accurately identifying genes in viruses that could prevent the pathogen’s progression in humans. Finally, to reduce risks from dangerous attacks, the FSC also tests its countermeasures against certain pathogens and select biological agents.