NASA Spinoff

Corrosive Gas Restores Artwork, Promises Myriad Applications

The successes with the art restoration process were well-publicized, and Lynda Taylor- Hartwick of the Independent Association of Questioned Document Examiners Inc. (IAQDE), a multinational, nonprofit professional organization dedicated to the art of forensic analysis of documents, read about the effects of atomic oxygen on ink and became curious about possible applications for this process in the field of forgery detection. She found that it can assist document analyzers in determining if, for example, checks or wills have been altered.

Atomic oxygen oxidation of ink may cause altered pen marks to look differently than the original marks. It can help examiners discriminate between two different inks, because different inks may oxidize at different rates, showing document examiners any signs of tampering. Usefulness, however, is not limited to instances where the inks are of different manufacture. Atomic oxygen, which oxidizes and removes organic materials by converting them into gasses, works gradually. Thus, thick layers of carbon or organic materials take longer to remove than thin layers. The ends of pen strokes tend to have much thicker ink deposits than the rest of the line, enabling the use of atomic oxygen exposure to determine which lines were drawn first, which strokes were made as one fluid movement, and which overlapped strokes have been added at a later date, a clear indication that a document has been altered.

The most telling sign, though, is the layering of ink that occurs when someone writes over a letter or number to alter it. Take, for example, the classic case of modifying a report card to turn an F into a B before showing the parents. To complete this feat, the belatedly concerned student would connect the lines at the top of the F with a curved stroke, making it more similar to the letter P, and then finish the job by looping in the base, thus raising the grade to a B. In order to make the job look good, though, the strokes must connect to the original letter, even overlap a little to make it look uniform. It is the overlapping, a miniscule amount of layering, that atomic oxygen can erode in order to expose the alteration.

While most parents may not go the extent of acquiring a portable atomic oxygen gun to check a report card, the application becomes more relevant for applications like determining check fraud or altered wills. Just as an F can become a B, a 1 can become a 9 or a 3 can become an 8, which could have potentially significant financial implications in instances of fraud.

It is not just paint and ink that the Glenn team is experimenting on, though. The gas has biomedical applications as well. Atomic oxygen technology can be used to decontaminate orthopedic surgical hip and knee implants prior to surgery. As a result of handling, fabrication, and exposure to air, the surfaces of these implants are often contaminated with endotoxins (naturally occurring compounds found within bacteria) and other biologically active contaminants. Such contaminants contribute to inflammation, which can lead to joint loosening, pain, and even the necessity to remove the implant. Previously, there was no known chemical process which fully removed these inflammatory endotoxins without damaging the implants. Atomic oxygen, however, can oxidize endotoxins and any other organic contaminants to convert them into harmless gasses, leaving a contaminant-free surface.

The inventors have patented this application for atomic oxygen and believe it could lead to significant reduction in health care costs for the more than 2.8 million people who receive orthopedic implants annually. They also believe that it promises increased functional life of implants, as well as a reduction of inflammation and the associated joint pain that patients experience.

Additional collaborative research between the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and the Glenn team into the terrestrial uses of atomic oxygen shows that this gas’s roughening of surfaces even improves cell adhesion, which is important for the development of new drugs.

While this application is still in its testing stages, the others are available for use. The patent for atomic oxygen art restoration is now in the public domain. Use of the technology for document alteration detection was never patented, and it, too, is available in the public domain. A patent was licensed for the removal of biologically active components from surgical implants, and Glenn is currently in talks with a company that sells plasma treating equipment.