A new detector could finally answer the question of whether the body of former Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa is buried under the west end zone of Giants Stadium.
New cadaver sensing technology developed by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) can detect not only dead bodies, but also trace amounts of the things that will kill you, including explosives, spoiled food, and carcinogens.
"It takes a tenth of the time," compared with existing body sniffing technology," said Thomas Bruno, a scientist at NIST, who co-authored a new study in the journal Forensic Science International describing the new device.
"If it only takes two minutes to process a sample, that means you can sample a whole lot more sites than you otherwise would."
To test their device the scientists buried dead rats in several inches of soil and let them decompose for 20 weeks. Several times they stuck a small tube into the soil and sucked up a small amount of air.
The samples from the area around the dead rats contained ninhydrin-reactive nitrogen, or NRN, an indicator of the dead rat. Police already use NRN to expose latent fingerprints. Soil samples taken from other places without buried rats all came back negative for NRN.
The cadaver sniffer isn't the only thing that can find a buried body. Dogs and other technologies can also find the product of foul play or deadly accidents. But where the device excels is its ability to find a body that is buried even under a concrete slab.
By drilling a hole 1/8th of an inch deep into a concrete slab, and inserting their detector, the scientists expect they could find a concealed body without taking a jackhammer to the entire slab.
The scientists haven't yet tested it on humans, although they have contacted the Boulder, Colorado Police Department. Fortunately for Boulder, and unfortunately for the NIST scientists, there aren't many murders in Boulder.
"We wanted to obtain some real samples of grave soil," from the Boulder PD, said Bruno. "But they didn't have any."
Bruno has met with investors to explore the possibility of commercializing their device to detect not only chemicals coming from graves, but also chemicals that could put you in a grave.
By changing the various polymers and clays inside the device, the scientists can change which chemicals the device can detect. Spoiled food, decayed chicken, explosives, and other nasty things any normal person wouldn't want to come in contact with can then be detected.
The current prototype is still too large to be truly portable. Before the device can be commercialized, the scientists will have to shrink it to hand-held sized.
"This is sorely needed technology," said Arpad Vass, a scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a professor at the University of Tennessee. "There are more than 18,000 clandestine graves here in the United States. I'm really glad that they are working on this."
That said, detecting those clandestine graves is a difficult business, said Vass. The body itself, the soil around the body, the temperatures it's subjected to and presence and amount of rain, among other variables, all affect how quickly a body decomposes.
Before a commercial grade, cadaver-sniffing device can be deployed in any environment at any time, more experiments are necessary.
So could the cadaver-sniffing device find the missing body of Jimmy Hoffa? A self-described mob hit man alleged more than 20 years ago that Hoffa lies under the west end zone of Giants Stadium.
Several narrow holes would have to be drilled into the concrete and the device lowered down, said Bruno. But sealed in decomposition-slowing concrete, it's possible that, if Hoffa is buried there, the device could find him.