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The massive influx of fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and other powerful opioids into the United States has been recently highlighted by congressional hearings and reports from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Fentanyl is used in the medical community as an analgesic, but also ingested illicitly and/or accidentally (e.g., laced prescription pills). Currently, the only commercially available colorimetric detection method for fentanyl/fentanyl analogs is the one found in fentanyl test strips that make use of an antibody-antigen approach.  However, there is a need for rapid tests to determine if trace amounts of illicit drugs are present in a sample.
To meet this challenge, LLNL researchers noticed that synthetic opioids along with many other illicit drugs (e.g., heroin, morphine, LSD, cocaine) possess a common structural motif (tertiary amine functional groups) in their structures; the tertiary nature of this common motif could act as a catalyst for a variety of chemical reactions.  By selecting the appropriate reactants then, a detection platform for these toxic substances can be designed such that the trace amounts of the drug would catalyze reactions which generate products that have a distinctly different appearance than the unreacted sample (e.g., color change).


LLNL researchers have developed a technology suite that includes several methods for detecting trace levels of illicit drugs even in mixtures. These methods can be used as a rapid screening test for incoming samples; for the samples that were determined to contain detectable amounts, they would undergo final verification using conventional laboratory analytical techniques. The detection schemes are designed to provide easy to read visual signaling events such as a color change (colorimetric), fluorescent signal (using a portable UV light), phosphorescent signal (after exposure to natural light) and the coagulation (polymerization) of a mixture upon contact with the drug.  
The advantage of this novel detection methodology compared to other methods is the compound of interest (illicit drug) is a catalyst, not a reactant in the chemical reaction.  Therefore, it is not consumed during the course of the reaction and will continue to facilitate the reaction until completion, thus making the detection approach an inherently sensitive one.

Left Image Source:

Right Image Caption: Colorimetric detection response of acetylfentanyl when acting as a catalyst in different mol% concentrations.

  • Works for a variety of different illicit drugs so long as they have functional groups containing tertiary amines.
  • Can detect trace levels of the drug under normal environmental conditions (at room temperature).
  • Can be used in a variety of different detection schemes where the presence of the drug is shown via a colorimetric, fluorescent, or polymerization event signals among others.
  • Does not require any expensive chemical instrumentation such as Raman, FT-IR, or mass spectrometers.
  • Reagents can be chosen from a wide variety of chemicals, depending on the application space
Potential Applications

Forensic applications; illicit drug detection either for chemical agent release tracking, decontamination verification efforts, other forms of drug presence verification where trace levels of detection are needed quickly under ordinary environmental conditions.

Development Status

Current stage of technology development:  TRL 3 
LLNL has filed for patent protection on this invention.

Reference Number
IL-13836, 13854, 13855, 13856, 13862,13886, 13887, 13888, 13889, 13892, 13893