Aussie students develop new way to visualize fingerprints left on paper

Published 20 March 2009

Two University of Technology, Sydney students develop a method which relies on the application of heat to the sample, with the fingerprint development accomplished in a matter of seconds


The law of unintended consequences at times leads to negative developments, but at times creates positive results. Here is an example. Two students at Australia’s University of Technology, Sydney have developed a new way to visualize fingerprints left on paper. Adam Brown and Daniel Sommerville set out to create new reagents that would allow them to visualize fingerprints on paper, but during the process uncovered the simpler, safer, and more economical method for developing the images. Current methods for visualizing fingerprints on paper are labor-intensive and time-consuming, using toxic dyes and chemicals to stain the fingerprints or make them fluorescent.

The method developed by the two students relies on the application of heat to the sample, with the fingerprint development accomplished in a matter of seconds. “This was an interesting approach, as originally the aim was to make fingerprints colored using chemicals, but the students noticed that the application of heat alone could actually develop fingerprints,” said Dr. Brian Reedy, a senior lecturer and member of the Center for Forensic Science in the Faculty of Science. He added:

An extensive literature survey and discussions with other researchers revealed that there had been little research done regarding the application of heat to fingerprints, as it had been considered impractical and inferior to other techniques.

Our team refined the thermal technique, exposing fingerprints to hot air at temperatures of up to 300oC for periods of 10 to 20 seconds, which produced well-defined images.

We also observed that after shorter heating times, fluorescent prints could be observed.

Reedy believes the technique could lead to changes in how fingerprints are collected. “By removing the need for dyes and chemicals, this method makes fingerprint development on paper-based materials much easier and safer, and the images are available much more quickly. It is promising as there is the potential to make portable fingerprint imaging devices, which could be used directly at a crime scene. “There is also the scope for higher volumes of documents to be treated, something which usually doesn’t occur with more time-consuming or expensive methods.”

The research is an important milestone for UTS as it has been successfully commercialized in conjunction with UniQuest. Dr. Michael Manion, the UniQuest Manager of Innovation and Commercial Development (MICD) based in the Faculty of Science, worked closely with Reedy to lodge a patent application and negotiate a royalties-bearing license. Manion said the technology was of great interest to companies that manufacture forensic equipment, and after a period of negotiation, Foster & Freeman was chosen as the licensee. The company develops a wide range of scientific instruments for police and forensic laboratories across the world.

He believes there is huge potential for further commercialization success within the faculty. “Working with Dr Reedy and his team was exciting due to the level of interest generated in this technology and it is great to see a successful outcome. Of course it is also significant for both UTS and UniQuest as this is the first licensing agreement, but I have no doubt that there will be more to come and soon. All of the MICDs here at UTS are already working with researchers on further innovations that have great commercial potential.”