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ARLINGTON (CBS11) – You’ve seen the crime shows where police can tell who fired a gun by residue on a person’s hand.

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Now, a UT Arlington student has found a way to use just a thumbprint to tell if someone has handled illegal drugs.

The research could have a big impact on everything from police work to how we travel.

UTA student Jessica Lilley is working with what almost looks like vending machine, but it’s a laser spectrometer that lets her identify chemicals by seeing them on an atomic level.

And that laser led Lilley to research that could affect us in airport security, at border crossings and in courts and investigations of drug crimes.

Lilley and one of her professors had an idea about identifying people who have handled illegal drugs.

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“And so, the idea of being able to identify them from fingerprints, we began tossing that idea around to try to reconcile that thought with action,” Lilley said.

After putting in long hours, Lilley was able to figure out how to detect illegal drugs from a simple thumbprint on a small plate about the size of dollar bill. And the process works even if a person washed their hands.

“This is actually applicable worldwide or all aspects of the judicial system,” Lilley said of the potential of the work. “It can be used for court proceedings or just for an officer picking up someone on the side of the road they suspect of drug use they can immediately check with mass spectrometry.”

TSA inspectors, for instance, might not have to search every suitcase if they could just check the bag holder’s fingerprint.

And at busy border crossings, “You get long lines because it takes so long to check everyone Well, this is a very quick instrumentation and almost immediately you’ll have your answer,” said Lilley.

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Lilley plans to move on to medical school, but the work to improve and commercialize her fingerprint scanner she said will continue on in the labs.