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article imageBeam Me Up, Scotty: Handheld Substance Scanner Becomes A Reality

By Carolyn E. Price     Feb 28, 2007 in Technology
Researchers at Purdue have come up with a handheld device that can determine the chemical composition of an object or it can be used to detect trace elements on an objects surface, sort of like the tricorder that actors used to whip out on Star Trek.
This space aged chemical analysis tool sprays a fine mist of ion charged water droplets onto an object. The water droplets cling to particles like explosive residue on the surface of the object. The spectrometer then separates the ionized particles and dries them out and the chemicals that left over provide "a chemical map to the surface of the item tested or the object itself". If there are skin cells or any other organic tissue on the object, the device is capable of detecting them.
R. Graham Cooks, the Henry Bohn Hass Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in Purdue University's College of Science says that the system is really just a combination of two already existing devices. The first device is a desorption electrospray ionization, DESI. The DESI is the part that creates the fine mist. The other component is the handheld spectrometer.
Usually, spectrometers are used in more controlled environments, with the sample being tested sitting in a vacuum. Cooks, though, says that the accuracy of the device is not thrown off by using it in the field. Instead, the only issue has been with size. Most lab spectrometers weigh about 300 pounds, while the handheld devices weigh around 20 pounds. That weights a little more than one of Bones' tricorders but for a first try, that's pretty good!
"The accuracy is quite good," he said. "You suffer a little bit because every time you miniaturize, you lose something."
The research team has analyzed clothes, foods and tablets, and it's been successful in identifying cocaine on $50 bills in less than one second. The future commercial uses for the device may be using it to detect biomarkers such as urine or explosive residues left on suitcases at airports.
Two start-ups--Prosolia in Indianapolis and Griffin Analytical Technologies in West Lafayette, Ind., have been created to commercialize the device.
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