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Solving crime, "CSI' style

Some Lecanto High students might recognize a new machine in their lab from TV's CSI shows: a gas chromatograph.

Times Correspondent

It doesn't look like much _ kind of like a microwave oven. But Lecanto High School chemistry department teachers Edwin J. Fretz and Jack Hall are delighted with the school's new gas chromatograph.

The machine can separate mixtures, verifying suspected substances and quantifying the amounts of the separated compounds.

When serious science students are asked what they would like to do in the future, Fretz said, about 50 percent express an interest in forensic science, thanks in large part to the popular CSI TV shows.

Fretz said he was watching a rerun of one program and saw a machine similar to the one his department just received. He and Hall plan to set up hypothetical crime scenes that will give students a chance to operate the gas chromatograph.

The machine was a gift from Progress Energy and is worth about $5,000. It had been purchased some time ago, Progress Energy community supervisor Mac Harris said, and it has never been used. There is currently no use for it at the plant.

"So we simply took it and made a donation to the school. It has value to the school," Harris said.

Fretz heard about it through a memo from Lecanto principal Kelly Tyler. Apparently the gas chromatograph was offered to the school system; when Fretz heard about it, he replied without wasting a second.

When it arrived, Fretz could see it was unused. "It was still in the crate when I got it," he said.

The chemistry teachers will not be able to use the gas chromatograph immediately because it is missing two parts. Fretz said the school needs to get a column and a recorder.

A column is a coil of stainless steel tubing with granular-type packing material in it that actually separates the compound. The information then goes through a detector and sends it to the recorder, which prints the results for the operator.

Once they get their lessons going, the students should be able to process, say, a can of soda for criminal compounds to help them solve hypothetical crimes.

But gas chromatographs have uses beyond the crime lab, so students looking into other fields can benefit as well. They can be used for quality control anywhere there's a chemical process, Fretz said, and chromatographs are used in biology for pollution control.

"I am thrilled to have it," he said, "because I think teachers are always looking for ideas to pique students' interest."