This handheld device for chemical detection and identification is a downrange tool for situational understanding. It expands the survey mission with a focused objective, sniffing out priority chemical warfare agents, toxic industrial materials, and precursors.


As of June, there were 100 million registered chemicals in the American Chemical Society database. Some are naturally occurring, while others have been manmade. Combinations of these chemicals can produce useful, interesting, or sometimes … deadly reactions. While many chemicals are used for industrial purposes, some perform double-duty as useful household cleaning agents and – when introduced to the perfect mate – explosives, poisons or intoxicants.

In recent years, there’s been a change in the type of chemicals encountered by first responders and law enforcement at a response scene. As the Internet now allows for anyone to explore various options for combining common household items, threats are becoming more diverse, and therefore, harder to anticipate and prepare for.


Stepping Onto The Scene

There are already several go-to systems that are part of the first responder toolkit, including ion-mobility spectrometry (IMS) detectors, and handheld devices based on Raman and FTIR spectroscopy. Being armed with these instruments is increasingly considered a safety best practice, along with ensuring proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is worn.

Often, the initial step first responders take in analyzing their surroundings is to utilize a training protocol developed by HazMat IQ and executed with their “Stay Alive Five” equipment. This kit, sold as the SAFe Kit, includes a radiation detector, pH paper, fluorine paper, a temperature gun and a lower explosive limit (LEL) meter. Each piece of equipment allows responders to be more prepared, decrease their incident response time, and ensure responder safety in situations when hazards may not be visible.

Another tool that responders will utilize during their evaluation is their IMS device, which analyzes airborne chemicals. IMS technology is incredibly sensitive and handheld IMS products have been successfully used to give responders early warning of the presence of particularly harmful chemicals. Unfortunately, these devices have a high rate of false alarms, which means they frequently alert for serious threats such as chemical weapons that are not actually present. Due to their lack of selectivity, common substances such as diesel fumes and household cleaning products will trigger the device.

Most recently, the first responder toolkit has been expanded with the addition of M908 (watch video), a new device that utilizes high-pressure mass spectrometry (HPMS), effectively bringing the power of mass spectrometry right to where responders need it. This handheld device for chemical detection and identification is a downrange tool for situational understanding. It expands the survey mission with a focused objective, sniffing out priority chemical warfare agents, toxic industrial materials, and precursors. The dramatically increased selectivity of HPMS over IMS allows identification of a much broader list of target materials without false alarms, even when background or interferent compounds are present. When utilized together, as first responders make their way through the hotzone and the IMS is going off, they can look to M908 for a fast confirmation and identification of immediate danger.

Once the site is rendered safe by ruling out the presence of priority threats, first responders can continue and further interrogate samples to put together the puzzle pieces at the scene. Raman and FTIR (Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy) tools allow responders to analyze the solid and liquid compounds surrounding them using light scattering techniques. These tools are instrumental in identifying ambiguous chemicals – for example, is that powder on the floor of a bedroom an explosive (terrorist activity), cocaine (drug activity), or baby powder (hastily changed diaper?)

These tools are primarily used as bulk solid and liquid identification techniques and have the capability to identify thousands of material types. As such, these tools are often utilized at the end of an evaluation to determine the identity of all visible materials at the scene. With near-trace to bulk solid and liquid identification capabilities, M908 can also be utilized in conjunction with these tools, swabbing for residues on surfaces and performing a first pass at solid and liquid materials present to assist in rendering the site safe before Raman and FTIR are used to complete the mission.

Cleaning Up the Kitchen Menace

With the addition of M908 the new responder tool kit now has the tools necessary to protect first responders from evolving threats. As clandestine and household labs become more and more common in crime and disaster scenes, first responders must be equipped with tools downrange that are sensitive and selective enough to alarm them to priority threats. While the current toolkit contains a robust selection of analytical tools and meters, each has both benefits and limitations. It is the combination of these impressive detectors that will add real benefit to first responders’ activities. M908 allows for responders to more accurately confirm the presence of priority threats and quickly determine mission objectives in real time.

About Dr. Kevin Knopp

Knopp is co-founder & CEO of 908 Devices Inc. As an experienced high-tech entrepreneur, Kevin co-founded Ahura Scientific in 2002, and was Senior Vice President overseeing Operations, R&D and Safety and Security Sales through Ahura’s acquisition by Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2010, where he continued as Vice-President and Site Leader of the Portable Optical Analysis division. Kevin served as an independent board member for Crystal IS until its acquisition by Asahi-Kasei. He earned B.S.E.E from Boston University, M.S.E.E, and Ph.D. degrees in Optics from the University of Colorado. Kevin is an inventor on more than 20 US patents, is an author on more than a dozen refereed publications, and his products have received R&D 100, Business Week IDEA, GSN, CPhI Gold, Cygnus, and Frost & Sullivan awards.