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New device allows instant detection of unknown liquids

The device has been invented by a start-up company coming out of Harvard University. The company is called Validere and the device is branded technology is called Watermark Ink. The ink is used with a device small enough to fit into the palm of a hand. The device is described as a liquid decoder.

The device is capable of characterizing the chemical composition, as well as the material properties, of unknown liquids. The objective is primarily with health and safety to allow people attending the site of spillage to assess the nature of the spill. The secondary application is with quality control. Here the use might be to assess the quality of fuel at a pump, to check the gasoline or petrol is of the right grade.

Another application is with the assessment of the volatility of crude oil. Oil is often carried by railroad and there are different types of containers that can be used. Understanding the explosion risks in advance would allow the appropriate safety decisions to be made. A motivation across the various applications is to remove human error from safety assessments.

Steven Ashley (@steveashleyplus) “Liquid fingerprinting’ uses nanostructured materials to distinguish fluids by their surface tension.”

The technology works at the nanoscale, where chemicals are determined by variations in their surface tension. The device reads both chemical and optical properties. The variations are shown through color changes.

Akin to the litmus paper used in chemistry labs to detect the pH of a liquid, the detector changes color when it comes in contact with a liquid with a particular surface tension. The color-changing strip can be programmed to respond precisely to the unique surface tension exhibited by any liquid of interest. By having a simple color change the device does not require any one with special skills to operate. The portability of the device means it is designed to be used in the field.

Interviewed by Controlled Environments magazine, the CEO of Validere, Ian Burgess, explains the commercialization of the technology: “Validere translates this technology to create inexpensive, one-time-use test kits that can be used anywhere in the field to visually identify unknown liquids, all without the need for a dedicated power source.”

The technology has been described in the journal ACS Nano. The paper is titled “Wetting in Color: Colorimetric Differentiation of Organic Liquids with High Selectivity.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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