A prototype handheld detector under development at Sandia National Laboratories can identify the fatty acid methyl esters (FAME) of anthrax in less than five minutes. Sandia's Laboratory Directed Research and Development program supported the work. Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy.
Fatty acids are found in all living organisms with cell membranes. Analyses of gases driven from the bacteria have been used to identify bacteria and other pathogens at the genus level, and often at the species level. Identification of the bacillus in minutes, is a crucial step in alerting a building's occupants to flee the deadly bacteria, as well as in activating defenses such as anti-anthrax foam dispersal systems. The patent-applied-for detector, in which commercial interest has been expressed, would also aid security people making their rounds to locate point sources of the disease.
The technique works by preconcentrating airborne particles on a tiny hotplate. The hotplate immediately vaporizes the fatty acids in anthrax's cell walls to create the FAME that form a unique fingerprint of the bacteria. The wafted gases are distinctive to a detector. A small computer program correlates the amount of mass of each ester emitted in the analyzed gases at particular times - a process called elution - with already categorized elution peaks indicative of anthrax or other diseases.