Building a Better Dead Body Detector

By Joseph Calamia | August 3, 2010 10:31 am

graveIt was just like an Easter egg hunt, except instead of eggs, two researchers hid dead rats. Some rats waited three inches underground. Others sat in the open. The duo also buried empty boxes–for comparison. By the end of their study, Thomas J. Bruno and Tara M. Lovestead were expert deceased rodent-hunters, and may have developed a tool to help law enforcement find buried human bodies.

Bruno and Lovestead are chemists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Their body-finding tool has an aluminum needle, slightly thicker than a human hair, which they used to prick grave soil for samples from underground air pockets. Back in the lab, they sorted through those samples for rotting flesh gases, in particular one called ninhydrin-reactive nitrogen.

They found that five week-old bodies gave off the most ninhydrin-reactive nitrogen, but that they could  detect the gas even after twenty weeks. Their test is an improvement on more expensive means for finding dead bodies, because the device works at room temperature (previously analysis required an ultra-cold device). It also uses a chemical already available on a crime scene–forensics teams use ninhydrin reagent to pick up latent fingerprints.

Though this initial study only uncovered rat bodies under soil, Bruno said that the device might even detect a human body buried under a concrete slab (after drilling a one-eighth-inch hole). A seemingly particular scenario, but for crime show and mafia movie enthusiasts an understandable one.

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Related content:
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Discoblog: How Long Would It Take a Physics Lecture to Actually Kill You?
Discoblog: DNA Test Solves the Mystery of Copernicus’s Remains
Discoblog: Decapitated, Lion-Chewed Remains = Ancient Gladiator Graveyard

Image: flickr / Jay Malone

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Crime & Punishment
  • Rhacodactylus

    I love jobs like these cause they never occur to you in your daily life, but someone has to build and test “body detectors,” awesome.

  • Pam Corey

    The proper link to the NIST article is Thanks!

  • Joseph Calamia

    Thanks, Pam. Should be all set now!

  • alex

    Do you think it would work after 18 years? Wanna give it a try? I think I know where some bodies are, 20 inches beneath the soles of your shoes under the concrete floor of a hospital parking garage in Springfield, Misssouri. GPR shows a Mafia-style burial. We cannot convince the local cops to investigate the find and we’ve been trying for more that 4 years. Call my friend investigative reporter Kathee Baird in Springfield, Missouri at 417 224 1897 for all the details.


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