Innovation and Partnerships Office

NIMS Skin Touch Chemical Imaging IB-2958


  • Security / Identification
  • Criminal investigation
  • Biometric identification
  • Medical history
  • Medical diagnosis
  • Testing product efficiency
  • Cosmetics development


  • Enhanced detection of skin-surface chemicals, microbes
  • Non-invasive test for endogenous metabolites
  • Deeper understanding of an individual’s past history
  • Enhanced detection of health changes
  • Deeper analysis of product coverage
  • Flexibility: Analyze all molecules, or target specific compounds


Trent Northen, Ben Bowen, and Marion Leclerc at Berkeley Lab have invented a technology that not only scans a human fingerprint to identify a subject, but also produces a more complex understanding of the subject’s health and his or her activities. By touching a subject’s skin to a nanostructure-initiator mass spectrometry (NIMS) chip, the resulting mass spectrometry (MS) analysis can provide a wealth of information, such as microbial and chemical exposure and health status and changes. For medical and consumer testing of products applied to the skin, NIMS Skin Touch Chemical Imaging can report the presence of endogenous metabolites and their spatial arrangements to demonstrate product efficiency.

During analysis, rastering a laser beam in a conventional Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Ionization Mass Spectrometry (MALDI-MS) instrument generates a mass spectrum at each position. Analysis of these results can be used to reconstruct the image and identify the analytes, providing vast amounts of data useful to determining where a subject has been, what he or she has touched (such as explosives or drugs), and exposures to microbes or chemicals – with the added spatial information (location on the skin) unavailable previously. A chip can also be screened for specific compounds – such as a drug, bacterial signature, or biomarker – whose mass is known. Employed this way, the technology produces a faster screen and requires far less data storage.

The current method of fingerprint identification involves an image only. To obtain chemical information about the fingerprint, the skin must either be scraped or the subject’s finger must be immersed in solvent, and the solvent analyzed. These results cannot provide specific locations on the skin where the particular substance was found. The NIMS Skin Touch Chemical Imaging technology goes far beyond the surface, providing forensic, security, and medical experts with deeper troves of information, all from a noninvasive touch of the skin to a chip.

For medical use, the technology provides a noninvasive means to measure for substances sweated or excreted through the skin and for exposure to toxic substances; to track health, stress, addiction, disease recovery, and dietary changes; and to monitor the efficiency of antibiotics or antibacterial agents. Using this technology in skin-care or cosmetic development, a product’s rate of coverage can be tested at a microscopic scale.


STATUS: Issued U. S. Patent #9125596. Available for licensing or collaborative research.


Nanostructure Initiator Mass Spectrometry (NIMS) Flux Imaging, JIB-3066