Improved instrumental techniques, including isotopic analysis, applicable to the characterization of unusual materials with potential relevance to aerospace forensics

Nolan GP, Vallee JF, Jiang S, Lemke LG.


The problem of precise characterization, analysis, and eventual identification of unknown materials arises in many fields and takes many forms, depending on the nature of the substances under study. In the first part of this paper we review common, modern mass spectrometry techniques applied to such studies. We also give an overview of improvements made to these technologies in recent years by Silicon Valley companies and other teams focused on precise biomedical research dependent upon sensitive techniques, yet applicable to a wide range of non-biological materials. In the second and third parts of the paper we review practical experiences applying these techniques to the simplest case of the characterization of solid materials (as opposed to liquids or gases) and comparing our results with previously undertaken isotopic analysis. In particular, we describe our correlations of that analysis with the patterns described by witnesses in a well-documented, still-unexplained incident, initially thought to be of aerospace origin, which gave rise to the deposition of unknown material, and by the investigators who handled it in the field and the laboratory. The lessons from this specific investigation are applicable to a wider range of issues in reverse engineering of complex, esoteric materials, and aerospace forensics.