UCF Professor Uses Laser Technology to Study Bones, Helps Families of Unidentified Victims

Orlando, FL – A chemistry professor at the University of Central Florida is using laser-based technology to help families of victims whose remains have yet to be identified.

“It’s a handheld laser-induced spectrometer, also known as a handheld LIB,” said UCF doctoral student Kristen Livingston.

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There are two versions of laser-induced spectroscopy — a handheld, for field work, and a larger, fixed device for lab work, Livingston said.

Livingston and her professor, Matthieu Baudelet, hope they can get results by using the new technique to distinguish bones from other remains. The idea behind it is that someone’s metabolism or their environment produces unique signatures in the remains that allow them to be identified.

In a demonstration, Livingston said the instrument works by focusing a laser on the bone, or surface of the remains.

Lasers then help break down the sample, and the data is then converted into a spectrum, highlighting its composition in elements and atoms.

“So if you just have bones and you can’t do much DNA, it’s like a large mass grave where everything gets mixed up, and we can help,” Baudelet said.

He said he has been working on the project for years, adding that he wanted to do something to help the field of forensics.

The project has grown rapidly after receiving a grant from the National Institute of Justice in January of this year.

The goal is not to identify a person by their bones, but to help forensic or archaeologists sort the remains more quickly, Baudelet said.

“Unfortunately, an event like 9/11 can happen at any time, and like those very big events, you might stay, but you can’t be sure … that’s what we’re trying to do – speed up process, helping people (find) closure,” Baudelet said.

So far, the project has been successful, Livingston said.

“It’s all a big study, but the first step was to get spectrum from 12 donors, I analyzed that, then I just came back from North Carolina on a data collection trip, and now I’ve collected 18 more , 30 in total, so now we’re going to investigate (see) if we can correctly classify bones from 30 different individuals. So, we’ve looked at 12 so far, and we’ve been successful and able to use Chemical spectroscopy classifies them.”

Looking ahead, Baudelet said the next step is to study real-life cases. They now also want to expand their research to see if it could also help cremate remains.

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