So thought Megan Harries as she measured drops of putrescine and cadaverine — the chemicals that give decomposing corpses their distinctive, terrible odor — into glass vials. She then placed the vials on the floor of a shipping container, walked outside, and closed the door behind her.
Harries, a postdoctoral fellow and chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), returned a day later, after the vapors diffused. Outside the shipping container, she popped open an aluminum briefcase, unfurled a flexible tube with a metal tip at the end, and inserted that into a small hole drilled into the side of the container.
Harries was conducting the first field test of a high-tech sniffing device called a PLOT-cryo — short for “porous layer open tubular cryogenic adsorption.” This NIST-invented device can be used to detect very low concentrations of chemicals in the air. The results of the test were recently published in Forensic Chemistry.
Harries wanted to know if PLOT-cryo could be used at ports of entry to quickly and safely screen shipping containers for dangerous or illegal cargo. So, did the instrument detect the stench of death?
“Sure did,” she said. “It stank.”
Especially on the first few days. Harries returned to the shipping container every day for a few weeks as the chemicals evaporated away. Her goal was to determine how temperature, humidity and other factors affected the PLOT-cryo’s ability to detect chemicals in air.
The simulated shipping container — it was actually an old U.S. Army communications bunker — was in the parking lot at the NIST campus in Boulder, Colorado, not far from where employees parked their cars. “People would ask me, What is in there,” she said.