MRU develops investigative tool for wildfires, arsons, oil spills

​A crime-scene-type tool has been developed at Calgary's Mount Royal University to help investigators looking into wildfires, arsons and oil spills.

Mass spectrometer could be used at crime scenes to detect traces of chemical compounds

A wildfire rips through the forest by Highway 63 south of Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2016. A new device at Mount Royal University in Calgary is helping investigations into wildfires, chemical releases and other environmental forensics. ((Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)/CBC)

A crime-scene-type tool is being used by an Alberta university to help investigators looking into the cause of wildfires, arsons and oil spills.

Gwen O'Sullivan of Mount Royal University in Calgary said the mass spectrometer separates complex mixtures and can detect chemical compounds at very low levels.

She says that makes it possible to determine if flammable liquids were used to start a fire.

"You've heard of crime scene investigations — this is the same idea but in an environmental context," said O'Sullivan, an environmental science professor and environmental forensic researcher.

"There's roughly 1,200 fires a year in the summer in Alberta. Half of those are from man-made causes. If those ones were deliberately set using an accelerant or an accelerant was accidentally placed and ignited, we'd be able to determine that."

Prof. Gwen O'Sullivan says the mass spectrometer separate out really complicated mixtures in particular environmental samples. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

The mass spectrometer, used in tandem with other Mount Royal equipment, can produce a three-dimensional analysis to identify what ignited a fire or caused contamination.

In the case of an oil spill, the instrument can help establish what spilled where, who spilled it, as well as how the oil is breaking down and reacting to cleanup. O'Sullivan said there is no end to how the mass spectrometer can be used.

"You can use it for food quality. You can use it for arson investigations, criminal investigations, human health implications. The tool itself is quite flexible."

O'Sullivan said many major police forces would like to have the device at their disposal but, even if they could afford it, there would be a catch.

"With the amount of data that's generated, you get thousands and thousands of data points, so unless you have the time and energy and experience to process the data, it can be quite challenging."

O'Sullivan said Mount Royal has been analyzing some samples from Alberta during the current fire season.

Wildfires are a constant source of concern in much of Western Canada. A 2016 fire in Fort McMurray destroyed 10 per cent of the city's buildings and forced 88,000 people from their homes for weeks.


  • The original version of this story indicated the mass spectrometer used by MRU cost $550,000. That's the total cost. The instrument itself is priced in the range of $250,000. The total includes peripheral components, such as the autosampler and thermal desorption unit.
    Jul 26, 2018 4:44 PM MT