Knoxville Firm Licenses Human Remains Discovery Technology Developed at UT and ORNL

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Technology with roots in the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is being licensed by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory with the hope of bringing criminals more swiftly to justice and giving greater closure to grieving families.

The new remote sensing technology is being licensed to Agile Technologies of Knoxville which developed a special suite of sensors based on research at ORNL and UT. The company’s new device is called LABRADOR, which stands for Lightweight Analyzer for Buried Remains and Decomposition Odor Recognition. The handheld device, similar in appearance to a metal detector, will feature an array of metal oxide sensors optimized for the detection of volatile chemicals known to be present during various stages of human decomposition.

“The Department of Anthropology’s Forensic Research Facility at the University of Tennessee was instrumental in the development of the LABRADOR,” said Arpad Vass, who developed the technology. “This facility allowed Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers, interns, and graduate students (over a six-year period) to collect odor samples from hundreds of subjects providing the background data on which the LABRADOR technology was based.”

Vass is a senior researcher at ORNL and an adjunct research professor at UT. Marc Wise of ORNL also assisted in developing the technology.

“Each death is a heartbreak; every loss is a terrible grief,” said Keith Vaigneur, president of Agile Technologies. “But we hope our device will give loved ones greater closure and assist law enforcement officers in catching violent criminals. We also believe it may be useful for military, homeland security, disaster response and anthropological research.”

The device is expected to have a lower initial cost and lower training, deployment, and maintenance costs than other methods. It will be easier to transport and deploy than search dogs. And while dogs have a reliability of between 50 and 60 percent, the new device is expected to have a reliability of between 75 and 100 percent.

“We intend to seek out several strategic partnerships in this area, and engage ORNL in a work for others agreement to further develop this technology,” Vaigneur said. “It could also be applied to other areas such as the detection of illegal narcotics production.”

Founded by William Bass in 1971, the purpose of the Forensic Anthropology Center is to provide research, training, and service with compassion. The center is the first of its kind to permit systematic study of human decomposition. The land allows for studies using advanced technology to quantify how bodies interact with the environment.

Agile Technologies, founded in 1998, is a product design and development company with its stated goal being to take clients’ dreams and discoveries and transform them into marketable devices. Plans call for the device, which should be in production within about a year, to be marketed internationally.

-Contributions to this article were made by ORNL staff.

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