Mats de Jong: Putting a hold on illicit drug trafficking with portable electrochemical strategies

The trafficking and (ab)use of illicit drugs represents a serious threat to the well-being of society, with severe health, economic, and political implications. Belgium plays a central role in Europe’s drug issues, being the country with the largest volume of cocaine seized (64.5 tons in Belgium alone in 2020), while also being one of the main producers of amphetamine and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA).

Currently used field tests for on-the-spot cocaine detection, mostly colorimetric tests, have several downfalls. They lack specificity, leading to false positive results, and are easily bypassed by adding other (often coloured) compounds, producing many false negative results as well. This lack of accuracy causes large costs for our society: juridical, health-wise and economical. This presses the need for new and better portable detection devices for cocaine and other illicit drugs.

Accurate results on-the-spot

I got the opportunity to work on an innovative approach for the detection of cocaine when I started my PhD research in 2015 at the AXES research group of the University of Antwerp led by Prof. dr. Karolien De Wael. The project runs in collaboration with the National Institute of Criminalistics and Criminology (NICC) with dr. Nele Samyn being the copromotor of my PhD. By combining the main expertise of NICC, i.e. forensics, and AXES, i.e. (electro)analytical chemistry, I started my journey towards developing an electrochemical sensor for cocaine. The device had to be accurate, easy to use, low cost, fully portable and able to provide results within one minute on a variety of sample types (powders, liquids, clothing, etc.). The eventual approach is based on square-wave voltammetry using disposable sensor strips and a miniaturized device. This set-up did not only allow us to reach accurate results on-the-spot within a minute, but made it possible to detect multiple compounds at the same time, which is a convenient feature since cocaine samples are often ‘cut’ with other, often legal, compounds.

Broad network

After facing and resolving electrochemical challenges concerning the detection strategy used, promising results were obtained after performing thousands of measurements on confiscated samples. This was made possible because of the group’s broad network of forensic institutes and customs. A new challenge came up: translating the developed technology into an application which is usable by the targeted end-user audience (police, customs, etc.). This meant we had to find a way to translate the developed strategy into a package which allows the end-users to easily perform a test themselves with automated result generation. To achieve this, my PhD research looked beyond the pure science of the approach. I contributed in exploring possible road-to-market pathways in order to increase the valorisation potential of the results and bring the technology closer to the end-users, which in the end would benefit our society in the ‘war on drugs’. Focal points were software development and product development for the purpose of automation and increasing the accuracy and user-friendliness of the technology.

Wider application field

This PhD research is the result of years of hard work and collaboration within and outside my research group and university and I am forever grateful for this experience. Within our group, many researchers have been working the past few years on developing strategies for other drugs of abuse as well, allowing us to expand our target library of compounds, audience and market. Even more, the same technology is now being tested for explosives, phenols and antibiotics, showing the technology could generate an even greater societal impact.

Scientific research is not just about discoveries and doing your work on an individual basis, but it is about working in a team of enthusiastic researchers and people across different universities, multiple disciplines and country borders towards, in this case, a highly relevant application with clear valorisation potential. For this reason, steps are taken within our research group to found a spin-off company, named AxeSens, to bring our technology to the market.

Extra information about our research group and the research itself is available by clicking the links below:

- https://www.uantwerpen.be/en/research-groups/axes/electro-chemical-analysis/

- https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.analchem.8b00204

- https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2016/SC/C5SC04309C#!divAbstract