Research by GWU Professor and Staff Member Published in Forensic Science Journal

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Study Examines Method to Help Arson Investigators Recover Ignitable Liquids From Water
A photo of ATF K-9 Camden with two ATF Agents doing a demonstration in a GWU science classroom
Members of the Charlotte Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) visited GWU science classes in 2018. ATF Senior Special Agent Darren Solomon, (right) Union County Fire Marshal Kevin Rigoli and ATF K-9 Officer Camden demonstrated how Camden, an Accelerant Detection Canine, sniffs out scents of various liquids that arsonists use to start fires. After talking to them, Totten and Jacob Willis began thinking about conducting research on materials to help detect ignitable liquids.

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C.—Research by a faculty and staff member in the Gardner-Webb University Department of Natural Sciences could improve how arson investigators do their jobs. The scientific, peer-reviewed paper by Venita Totten, professor of chemistry, and Jacob Willis, GWU chemistry lab and undergraduate research coordinator, will be published in the prestigious Elsevier journal Forensic Science International in July.

Totten said they are excited to have their study accepted by the journal, which publishes the most innovative, cutting-edge, and influential contributions across the forensic sciences. The journal also includes investigations of value to public health in its broadest sense and research in the marginal area where science and medicine interact with the law.

Their research is titled, “The Use of Hydrophobic Pads to Recover Ignitable Liquids From Water.” In the abstract, Totten and Willis explain how significant amounts of water are used to extinguish fires, and finding evidence of ignitable liquid residue is challenging for investigators. Hydrophobic pads have been designed to collect oil-based products from the surface of water and preferentially absorb non-polar compounds while repelling water. In their study, hydrophobic pads are used to collect various classifications of ignitable liquids from the surface of water for analysis. They concluded that using hydrophobic pads to collect ignitable liquids shows promise.

The idea for the research came after Totten invited the Charlotte Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to visit GWU science classes. She met ATF Senior Special Agent Darren Solomon, Union County Fire Marshal Kevin Rigoli and ATF K-9 Officer Camden. Rigoli and Camden demonstrated how Camden, an Accelerant Detection Canine, is specially trained to sniff out scents of various liquids that arsonists use to start fires.

photo of accelerant-sniffing dog 'Camden the Fire Dog"After the demonstration, Solomon and Rigoil mentioned how challenging it is to detect the ignitable liquids in the presence of water, and Totten decided to help. She and Willis began formulating a plan to test their ideas.

“We are so excited that our research might help fire investigators,” Totten affirmed. “We hope that we can continue to make valuable contributions to our community.”

Located in the North Carolina foothills, Gardner-Webb University is a private, Christian, liberal arts university. Gardner-Webb emphasizes a strong student-centered experience and rigorous academics to prepare students to become effective leaders within the global community. Ignite your future at Gardner-Webb.edu.