Unknown Substances


Traditional forensic science laboratories excel in the detection of known illicit drugs and a variety of toxic chemicals. Forensic Science Center (FSC) researchers, however, are frequently called upon by various law enforcement groups and government agencies to assist in cases where compounds are present, but have not been previously identified, and whose chemical structure cannot be easily determined. Our expertise in chromatography/mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance, and other advanced spectrometric techniques provides analytical data to posit chemical structures for these so-called “unknown unknowns.” In-house synthesis experts may then generate the supposed material in the lab to confirm or refute the initial suspected chemical structure. These structural elucidation efforts are uncommon in everyday forensic science but play an ever more critical role in combating illicit drug use, counterfeit pharmaceutical development, and acutely toxic chemical threats, domestically and abroad.

Explosion Debris

In 1992, a “cold fusion” electrochemical cell—a device exploring chemical reactions to create nuclear energy—exploded at SRI International in Menlo Park, California. At the request of Cal-OSHA, Livermore scientists conducted forensic analyses of debris from the explosion to determine potential causes and any contributing factors. Evaluation included studies for the presence of tritium and neutron-activation products in metal components, as well as metallurgic analysis of the cell vessel wall and its detached base. Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry analyses also identified trace organic components, the potential initiator of the explosion, within the debris and accompanying residue. Read more about the case.

  1. B.D. Andresen, R. Whipple, A. Alcaraz, J.S. Haas, and P.M. Grant. “Potentially Explosive Organic Reaction Mechanisms in Pd/D2O Electrochemical Cells.” Chemical Health & Safety 1, No. 3: 44-47 (1994).
  2. P.M. Grant, R.E. Whipple, A. Alcaraz, J.S. Haas, and B.D. Andresen. “Hydrocarbon Oil Found in the Interior of a ‘Cold Fusion’ Electrolysis Cell After Fatal Explosion.” Fusion Technology 25: 207-208 (1994).
  3. P.M. Grant, R.E. Whipple, and B.D. Andresen. “Comprehensive Forensic Analyses of Debris from the Fatal Explosion of a ‘Cold Fusion’ Electrochemical Cell.” Journal of Forensic Sciences 40: 18-26 (1995).

Poisonous Powder

Biodefense efforts continue to increase in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist assault and subsequent anthrax attacks. In the years since, LLNL and the FSC has supported U.S. authorities in the identification of substances suspected of being anthrax spores (Bacillus anthracis). A report on the investigation included analyses of physical, chemical, and microbiological properties of the powder that had been mailed to offices of two U.S. senators and several news media outlets. This case is another example of the FSC and LLNL’s participation in both public health and national security investigations. Read more about the case.

Suspicious Shipment

In 1999, the U.S. Customs Service intercepted a shipment of white crystals in ampoules from Asia, destined for a private address in the Pacific Northwest. Although the vials were labeled otherwise, officials suspected the powder to be heroin. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Domestic Counterterrorism Unit took the lead and dispatched samples to LLNL for analysis. Using a range of mass spectrometry instrumentation, FSC scientists identified the substance as tetrodotoxin, a deadly marine neurotoxin derived from puffer fish. Although tetrodotoxin has therapeutic uses, and fugu (puffer fish) is a Japanese delicacy, even tiny quantities are lethal. The entire seizure corresponded to approximately 300 lethal human doses.

  1. C. Valdez, "The Total Synthesis of (−)-Tetrodotoxin: A Historical Account in Studies in Natural Products Chemistry," Studies in Natural Products Chemistry, Volume 47, 2016, Pages 235-260. 
  2. A. Alcaraz et al., "Analysis of tetrodotoxin," Forensic Sci. International., 1999, 99(1), 35-45.