You are here

Agnostic Detection of Synthetic Opioids and Other Illicit Drugs


In 2021 and 2022, the number of U.S. overdose-related deaths topped 100,000, with about two-thirds of those attributed to synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl. Fentanyl's chemical scaffold is easily tweaked to alter its spectroscopic signature and evade detection while delivering similar psychoactive effects. Numerous fentanyl analogues have been identified in illicit drug products and associated with fatal overdoses. The Drug Enforcement Administration's temporary scheduling of fentanyl-related substances has mitigated the appearance of new analogues somewhat, but certain derivatives such as fluorofentanyl continue to be widespread. In addition, drug traffickers have turned to other classes of synthetic opioids such as nitazenes which can also be structurally modified into pharmaceutically active, uncontrolled derivatives. Currently, field detection devices cannot alert users to the presence of novel compounds unless the devices have been appropriately configured. For example, if the device is spectroscopic in nature, detection is based on predetermined libraries of specific spectral signatures associated with those substances. Libraries require updates as substances are identified to incorporate the new spectral information. If the substance has not been previously identified in the field, and has no entry in the library, the end-user will likely not receive any indication that a potentially dangerous fentanyl-related drug is present, until a sample of the seized material has been analyzed by a forensic laboratory. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that most illicit drug products encountered in the field are mixtures of multiple compounds, which may obscure the target compound's signature. This topic seeks innovative methods to develop the capability to alert field personnel, or personnel in a controlled environment, to untargeted fentanyl-related substances in the presence of other compounds. Note the proposed approach need not be spectroscopic; this was provided as an example of the complexity associated with detecting an unknown compound. The proposed solution should include the following requirements from a Tier 1 or Tier 2 approach: Tier 1: Handheld, battery operated detector. • Threshold performance would be classification of pure compounds that might not yet be included in standard libraries (e.g., suspected synthetic opioid, not necessarily the precise ID). Sample preparation should be minimal, no more than dissolution of sample into a solvent. Processing time should be no greater than 5 minutes. • Optimal performance would be classification of suspected narcotics that are present in low-dose forms (e.g., tablet formulations), say less than 1% composition by mass. Minimal sample preparation. Processing time should be no more than 1 minute. • Software solutions applied to existing hardware (such as an algorithm for a Raman detector) would be considered, with the same threshold and optimal requirements. Tier 2: Portable detector that is moveable by a single person without wheeled assistance. • The weight should be less than 40 pounds, 120 VAC power, and rugged enough to be moved without maintenance (e.g., optical realignment). • Threshold performance would be identification of pure or nearly pure unknowns without a previous library entry. Samples should have minimal preparation beyond dissolving into solution. Processing time should be less than 5 minutes. • Optimal performance would be identification of unknown narcotics, that is, new synthetic opioids, in cut mixtures, such as tablet formulations. Minimal sample prep, processing time should be less than 1 minute. • Detection limits for unknowns should be for at least 1% of the sample composition. Software solutions, such as AI/ML algorithms for existing instruments are also encouraged.
US Flag An Official Website of the United States Government