A robust portable instrument for the fast and accurate detection of illicit drugs and cutting agents

The University of Antwerp developed a new and versatile portable sensor for the detection and identification of illicit drugs and their major cutting agents.  The sensor has a fast response time (< 40 s), is easy to handle and allows wireless transfer of results to smartphone or tablet.  Sampling is standardized assuring robustness and reproducible results.

Situation before

Detection and identification of illegal drugs is a major and challenging task of both police and custom officials.  Today’s field drug tests still rely on traditional chemical reactions and their response is based oncolor change.  Color tests rely on the changes that occur in the color of particular reagents when the suspicious compound is added.  The change in color indicates the possible presence of the compounds of interest.  The color tests suffer from several drawbacks: (i) the result is not unique for one particular substance,often several substances cause the same color change; (ii) they are sensitive to interpretation by the operator as color differences are often subtle; (iii) the color depends on the concentration of the drugs present and the working (light) conditions; (iv) the ambient temperature has an effect on sensitivity and speed of reaction; (v) large numbers of false positive and false negative results occur and (vi) in most cases adulterants/cutting agents are not detected.


The Antwerp X-ray analysis, Electrochemistry and Speciation Group (AXES) of prof. K. De Wael developed a technology based on the objectiveness and reliability of electrochemical detection and identification.  A small standardized sample is added to the surface of a screen printed electrode.  The NarcoReader then automatically applies a voltage range to the electrode and registers the response (current).  While the profile of the current is unique to the composition of the sample and thus allows identification, the magnitude of the current is proportional to the concentration of the constituents.  Within 40 seconds the results are automatically send to a dedicated app on smartphone or tablet. 

The electrodes are commercially available and optimized for the NarcoReader by the AXES group.  They are single use, avoiding the risk of cross contamination.  Due to the nature of the technology besides illicit drugs, also adulterants/cutting agents can be detected.

About the researchers

Since 2011, Prof. Karolien De Wael became appointed as tenure track assistant professor at the Department of Chemistry, University of Antwerp, in 2016 she was promoted to associate professor with a research focus and in 2018 to full professor.  Her main research interests are related to analytical chemistry, electrochemistry and (bio)sensor development.  From 2012 she organizes the annual SMOBE meetings (summer meeting on bio-electrochemistry), organized in Antwerp.  She is involved as supervisor or co-supervisor in numerous projects on (bio)electrochemistry aiming at the detection of target molecules.  In total 9 PhDs were successfully defended in the past five years with K. De Wael as (co)promotor.  Since 2014, she is member of the Young Academy (Belgium).  Over the last few years the AXES research group has grown and now counts ca 25 members.  She is currently supervising 12 PhDs as (co)promotor.

The AXES research group is part of the Chemistry Department and performs fundamental, methodological and application-oriented research involving a wide range of analytical techniques.  A recurring theme in the AXES research is the use of state-of-the-art methods for determination of low concentration levels and/or for imaging of (one or multiple) analyte species.  These methods are frequently (but not exclusively) applied to address environmental problems.

More information

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