Cadet's ionic liquids research will help DOD investigators

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Cadet 1st Class Yasmin Sarmiento wasn't working on just any science project during her internship last summer. Instead, she was busy analyzing chemical solutions that could transform the process of criminal investigations.

Sarmiento, a materials chemistry major here, spent her summer at the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Georgia analyzing ionic liquids that could help criminal and Defense Department investigators better preserve evidence.

She began researching the liquids her junior year here and was inspired by former Academy Chemistry Research Center director, Dr. John Wilkes, who invented some of the world's first room temperature ionic liquids while teaching at the Academy.

"He is one of the research scientists known as the founding father of ionic liquids," Sarmiento said. "Before, the liquids were kept only in extreme temperatures."

During her internship, Sarmiento and Academy research scientist, Hannah Miller, were able to further their studies of forensic sampling by using ionic liquids to determine explosives.

"What we really wanted to do was make the liquids for a wide range of analcites," Sarmiento said. "Whether you wanted to detect a sample of drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine, or explosives ... we wanted to see if that was possible. That's the good thing about the liquids: They're able to collect and retain samples of a wide range of analcites."

One of the biggest steps Sarmiento and Miller did for the project was use a leading-edge, direct analysis in real time atmospheric pressure ion source to analyze the samples.

"You could put the swab right next to the beam and the detector and results would appear within seconds opposed to waiting half an hour to an hour," Sarmiento said. "Once we get more funding for the project, we can explore the drug side to see if ionic liquids can actually retain substances like cocaine and the meth."

Sarmiento said her team's focus during the summer was experimenting with the swab samples and optimizing what kind of swab they wanted.

"It's an ongoing project," Sarmiento said. "Now we're kind of optimizing the procedure. Once you retain the sample, it's about figuring out how to concentrate it or how to optimize the analytical steps.

Sarimento said she thinks the Academy does well at involving cadets in research and gearing it toward actual Air Force application.

"You can apply it to real life such as with forensics, in helping catch criminals by better preservation of the evidence. I think that definitely puts things into perspective. What I'm learning at the Academy isn't just about memorizing concepts from a book. It's about actually applying it in the real Air Force."

Sarmiento's work was highlighted in the Academy's annual research report and recognized by the Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory as the Defense Department project of the month.

"I spent about an entire semester working on the project and we're still presenting our posters at events such as CSURF, the Colorado Springs Undergraduate Research Forum," Sarmiento said.

Sarmiento said science has been a passion of hers since she was little.

"In middle school and in high school I thought learning science was really cool and I've grown to love learning it," Sarmiento said. "Coming here definitely sparked my interest too, having so many resources such as the facilities we're able to use and scientists such as Dr. Wilkes."

Sarmiento has already been selected for one of four available spots as an Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent upon graduation.

"I still have to go through field agent training, but I would like to become a forensic scientist consultant later on in my career," Sarmiento said. "That is my ultimate goal."