Get Regular Updates!
|The Real CSI: From shirt fibres to illicit drugs


The Real CSI: From shirt fibres to illicit drugs

The Real CSI: From shirt fibres to illicit drugs

CSI-style shows have been a big hit on our screens for almost 2 decades now, but analysing trace evidence is a lot more challenging than the shows writers would have us believe.

The Real CSI: From shirt fibres to illicit drugs

Investigating a crime scene tends to look pretty straightforward on TV.

You find some fibres or dirt, and ‘the lab’ will tell you exactly where it came from in record time.

As you’d expect, the reality of CSI work is more complicated than our favourite shows suggest.

While police now have access to DNA databases to track down suspects, deciphering where trace evidence comes from can be much harder.

Established by the WA Government in the 1890s, ChemCentre is one of Australia’s longest-running testing laboratories.

The centre analyses mountains of evidence every day – a time consuming and complicated process according to the centre’s Forensic Chemistry Section Manager, Dr John Coumbaros.

“We’ve got a range of tools ranging from optical microscopy and electron microscopy through to analytical microscopes that allow us to characterise evidence,” John says.

“We base that work around the traditional Locard’s exchange principle, where every contact leaves a trace.”

"Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is create a triangulation between suspect, crime scene and victim.”
View Larger
John Coumbaros and the team at ChemCentre work closely with WA Police to analyse non-DNA evidence from Perth’s crime scenes and incidents.

One by One

Over the past few years, ChemCentre has been tackling one of the more challenging areas of forensic analysis – trace evidence.

“A big innovation for us has been building a database for fibres,” John says. “We have started going out and sampling the population of fibres to get a greater feel for what’s out there and sampling reference fibre sources such as clothing and motor vehicle seats.”

Building the database is no small feat, with millions of blends of fibres in stores around the country.

“We looked at it and said, well, it’s a difficult task, but maybe we should start building a database around these evidence types to enhance their evidential value,” John says.

“For the WA Police, they can see the value of us doing the work, and the courts can see what the results actually mean in the courts context.”

Much like how DNA can be a strong piece of evidence in court, the fibre database helps identify individual fibres that could provide a lead in a case.

While this evidence is difficult to sort through, it has the potential to reopen cold cases or strengthen a conviction. And it’s got a lot to do with the shape of your threads.

View Larger
ChemCentre have been building a catalogue of fibres to help police with their investigation of trace evidence at crime scenes.

The shape and the colour

Take white and blue cotton for instance. Both are found in t-shirt and denim products. If you found these fibres at a crime scene, their use as evidence won’t be much.

But what if mixed in with those cotton fibres is something a bit more exotic like silk or cashmere?

It may have been in a limited run of a particular brand or a specific blend sold by one retailer.

And it’s not only the type of material that’s identified during fibre analysis. The structure, size, colour and manufacturing processes are also identified, narrowing down the fibre profile.

If this specific blend can connect a victim and a suspect, it can be a powerful piece of evidence in a case.

This classification process is one ChemCentre has excelled at, and it starts a lot more simply than you’d expect.

“A good way to classify fibres is just on colour initially,” John says. “We don’t rely on colour in the way the human eye sees it, because the way we perceive colour can be quite different.”

Through a microscope with a microspectrophotometer, the team measures the spectrum of visible light from the fibre.

These fibres are measured against the database by colour first, narrowing down the search field.

View Larger
Using colour as an initial filter, ChemCentre can narrow down fibre types from a crime scene to find if any exotic fibres could be used to connect the victim and crime scene to the suspect.

It’s then up to human eyes to find a match, confirming if there’s any evidence to connect the victim with the accused.

It might sound painstakingly slow, but without the processes ChemCentre has put in place, it could take much longer.

When getting it right means the difference between a killer walking free or serving a life sentence, accuracy and credibility are paramount.

Times like these

Another area of focus for ChemCentre has been in the illicit drug space, which saw a sharp rise in the sale of synthetic cannabinoids back in 2012.

“It was quite a challenging time,” John says. “The manufacturers of these cannabinoids were relatively ahead of the curve in that our legislation didn’t cover these drugs.”

These ‘legal highs’ saw forensic laboratories across the country focus on identifying these new chemicals – by no means a quick or easy task.

Due to the wide range of novel psychoactive substances turning up one after another, ChemCentre had to find a more efficient way to analyse these exotic compounds.

They combined their routine analysis with research grade chemical characterisation tools, quickly identifying what the Health Department needed to legislate.



Along with routine drug analysis, ChemCentre also analyse dopping results for the racing industry, including horses and greyhounds.

Along with routine drug analysis, ChemCentre also analyse dopping results for the racing industry, including horses and greyhounds.

A matter of time

Despite how it’s represented in pop culture, forensic analysis can take a bit of time.

Due to the constant stream of work delivered to analysis centres around the country, a typical drug analysis can be quite complex, taking several weeks to complete.

In some special cases, authorities may work directly with ChemCentre to fast-track the analysis of a substance – such as when medical staff needed to know exactly what drug a group of backpackers ingested in early 2018.

“We had the Health Department and the police really wanting to put out an alert to the public,” John says. ”Within a few hours, we had a result around what the drug actually was, so the hospital toxicologists could give them the right treatment.”

“With physical evidence, it can be a case of how long is a piece of string? For example, in arson cases where we’re trying to identify the presence of ignitable liquids that may have flamed a fire, we can turn them around quite quickly.”

So next time you see a crime show where ‘the lab’ has the results back for a minor case in an hour, you now know the truth.

Their lab’s been slacking off – unlike the team at ChemCentre.

Particle Puns


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy

We've got chemistry. Want something physical?