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Hungry for more stories on science, culture and technology?Check out Brain Food: Insights and Discoveries from Northern Arizona. From ground breaking scientific research to global music projects, Brain Food profiles some of the unique projects happening in the region and the interesting people behind them. While there are no new episodes of Brain Food, we will continue to maintain the archive here.

Brain Food: NAU Invention May Help Solve Gun Crimes Faster

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Christopher Mann's laboratory at Northern Arizona University is strewn with bullet cartridges. He's an optical research scientist working on an invention to help detectives solve gun-related crimes more quickly, accurately and affordably. In his ballistics forensics lab, Mann is testing his 3-D imager - a camera system that uses light waves to record microscopic details found in shell casings.

"Usually when a crime's committed, one of the biggest sources of evidence are actually the casing," Mann says. "So, we tried to find out information quantitatively of things like the depths of the firing pin impression, any other striations or markings that can essentially become a finger print for this cartridge casing. And then what we try to do is match this to a particular make, model and eventually, hopefully, the actual firearm that shot the shell casing."

Mann's goal is to produce a portable imager that firearms examiners can take to crime scenes instead of having to remove evidence and test it back at a lab. He believes his invention will save detectives critical time - and money - while investigating gun crimes.

"Currently, you need an instrument that's very expensive, close to a million dollars to buy," Mann says. "The idea here is we're trying to develop an instrument that's cost-effective and, secondly, that can eventually be made field-portable. And I think those are very worthy goals for us to try to meet, and I think it's something that a lot of law enforcement agencies would like to try and have are these kind of capabilities."

The imager may also help officers determine possible links between crimes. And, in the case of a shooting spree, they could more quickly verify the number of gunmen involved.