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Sci-Fi Science

Purdue Unveils a Tricorder 177

Posted by kdawson
from the beam-me-up dept.
aeoneal writes "According to Science Daily, mass spectrometry is no longer limited to what can be taken to the lab. Purdue researchers have created a device they liken to a tricorder, a handy 20-lb. device that combines mass spectrometry with DESI (desorption electrospray ionization), allowing chemical composition to be determined outside of a vacuum chamber. Purdue suggests this could be useful for everything from detecting explosive substances or cancer to predicting disease. Researcher R. Graham Cooks says, 'We like to compare it to the tricorder because it is truly a hand-held instrument that yields information about the precise chemical composition of samples in a matter of minutes without harming the samples.'"
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Purdue Unveils a Tricorder

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  • by garcia (6573) on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @09:26PM (#18176048) Homepage
    a handy 20-lb. device

    "He's dead Jim."

    "Well, I dropped the tricorder on his head."
  • by chriss (26574) * <chriss@memomo.net> on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @09:28PM (#18176054) Homepage

    In 1992 Harry Harrison (of SF fame) and Marvin Minsky (of AI fame) collaborated on The turing option [amazon.com], trying to merge Minsky's ideas about how an artificial mind could work with a SF story. Wasn't exactly a masterpiece, but there was an astonishing twist: In the book a brilliant scientist creates the first true AI and embeds it into a sort of fractal robot, whose arms are split into more arms like branches on a tree, ending with thousands of autonomous arms with their own vision each. And the first place this system is used (after being stolen): in agriculture, picking up bugs.

    So I will predict the first mass use of Purdue's Tricorder: Japanese toilets!!! [wikipedia.org]. It can already recognize "biomarkers" in urine, so someone will build a cheap version of it into a toilet and every time you take a dump it will tell you what you should not have been eating, how sick you will be tomorrow and that if you continue that way your insurance won't cover your therapy. It will save the health systems billions.

    .

    Oh, and I'm serious about the toilet part.

    • Re: The Island (Score:3, Informative)

      by prakslash (681585)
      Interestingly, the "toilet tricorder" was shown in the 2005 movie "The Island" starring Ewan McGregor. The toilet detected too much salt/nitrates in the urine and restricted him from eating bacon.
    • Hmmm...they must have stolen it from Rocheworld [york.ac.uk].
    • by AHumbleOpinion (546848) on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @11:17PM (#18176902) Homepage
      So I will predict the first mass use of Purdue's Tricorder: Japanese toilets!!!. It can already recognize "biomarkers" in urine, so someone will build a cheap version of it into a toilet and every time you take a dump it will tell you what you should not have been eating, how sick you will be tomorrow and that if you continue that way your insurance won't cover your therapy. It will save the health systems billions.

      The first use will be counterterrorism/counterinsurgency, the second law enforcement. In the law enforcement context they will analyze the air around you when they stop you to chat, pull you over, etc. The molecules leaving your body/clothing/car will enter the public domain atmosphere and be fair game for analysis. It think there is precedent from having dogs sniff the exterior of a car at a border crossing, the pot smell entered the public domain, the trained dog signaled, instant probably cause for a search. Similar justifications will be safety related. "I need to interview you, but first for your safety and mine, I need to scan you."
      • Exactly right... in the lab a lot of the funding already comes from DHS and DARPA
      • However, that is completely contradictory to the 4th Amendment Right protecting us against Search & Seizure. Or, is it that when we are pulled over for a traffic violation, we are immediately suspects and that right is waived?
      • Nope, not unless the Supreme Court is overthrown. They ruled several years ago in a case involving the police use of FLIR to spy on the houses of suspected pot growers, that the use of remote sensing equipment without a warrant is a violation of the "Unwarranted Search" clause of the Bill of Rights. The cops tried to use the "plain sight" exception, but since we don't see in infrared, the court wasn't having any of it. I think the tricorder would fall under this ruling. Using a tricorder without the exp
    • how sick you will be tomorrow and that if you continue that way your insurance won't cover your therapy. It will save the health systems billions.

      You've seen 2057 on Discovery, I take it? :D
  • pussies (Score:5, Funny)

    by Penguinshit (591885) on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @09:29PM (#18176062) Homepage Journal

    The research team has used the device to ... identify cocaine on $50 bills in less than 1 second.

    REAL playas use Benjamins to snort blow!

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Prysorra (1040518)
      Where'd they get the cocaine? And it's actually an important point - everything that requires knowing what an material is made of is bound to be used EVERYWHERE.

      .......BEEP BEEP. ....MOM! Why is there broccoli in this??
      • Re:pussies (Score:4, Informative)

        by rednip (186217) * <[rednip] [at] [gmail.com]> on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @10:14PM (#18176410) Journal

        Where'd they get the cocaine?
        Well, since studies have shown that up to 4 out of 5 [snopes.com] circulated bills have traces of cocaine, I'd say that it was fairly easy. However, before you try to smoke your $50s, the amount per bill is very small (16 micrograms).
      • Re:pussies (Score:4, Interesting)

        by AndersOSU (873247) on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @10:40PM (#18176572)
        I had a colleague who was testing out a new mass-spec machine (probably similar to the one in TFA) to verify cleanliness between campains at a plant site. The machine had been developed for use in airports, and the software already contained the profiles for a number of drugs and explosives. Apparently, as the sibling points out, coke is on a lot of our money. Most of the time it is in the ppb level, which could be transfer from money that was with money that was with money that was with coke. Occasionally however a bill would show 100 - 1000x the typical amount, we concluded that those were bills that made it into peoples noses.

        A related note, a lot of money on the also has measurable levels of meth.

        I don't think the point to this how much money is involved in drug trade, but rather how inter-connected out money is, and how good our analytical chemistry techniques are.

        Although... a terrorist would probably be using money that hasn't been in wide circulation - perhaps we could spot them by seeing if too much money any individual is carrying is devoid of drugs.
        • Re:pussies (Score:4, Funny)

          by mastershake_phd (1050150) on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @11:55PM (#18177130) Homepage
          Although... a terrorist would probably be using money that hasn't been in wide circulation - perhaps we could spot them by seeing if too much money any individual is carrying is devoid of drugs.
           
          What a great logical conclusion. I can just see a politician/cop/prosecutor thinking this. Clean money = terrorist. Dirty money = drug user. Lockem up!
          • Well, you have to admit that's a effective way to protect innocent bystanders from terrorist acts - if you have something on everybody, there aren't any.
        • A related note, a lot of money on the also has measurable levels of meth.

          I've heard anecdotal stories of bank tellers that have failed drug tests by testing positive for half a dozen different types of drugs. Supposedly by handling so much money during the course of their jobs, they absorb enough trace amounts to test positive.

          I've also been told that it's a common enough occurrence that the some testing labs usually flag specimens that have unusual results (low concentration + wide variety) just so that a
      • by ColaMan (37550)
        You can actually buy cocaine from pharmaceutical companies.

        Well, not *you* specifically. But research chemists can get it, it's just another compound. It requires an inordinate amount of paperwork for some reason though. And a few checks (no, not the cash kind, background checks, proposed use,etc). And you're going to have to keep it under lock and key.

        But apart from that, yeah, you can get it.
        • by compro01 (777531)
          You can actually buy cocaine from pharmaceutical companies.

          on a side note, i believe it's still used for some types of facial reconstruction surgury.
      • Where'd they get the cocaine?

        Easy - they applied to the DEA for a research permit and were certified to buy small amounts from qualified vendors.

        Yes, I'm serious. If you are a properly certified research/development facility, and you get an approved permit, you can buy or be loaned all manner of things not available on the 'open' market. This includes cocaine, meth, plutonium - and moon rocks. (And yes, part of being certified is having a tracking and accounting system in place for the material,

        • by smagruder (207953)
          Cocaine and meth aren't available on the open market?

          Meth labs are exploding like Jiffy Pops in some parts of the country. That's *some* closed market! :)
  • a handy 20-lb. device

    Must be the ST:TOS version. At 20 lb, I would imagine that a shoulder strap is mandatory wear. Thanks, but I'll wait until the ST:TNG version hits.

  • Take a good look.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ElScorcho (115780) on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @09:35PM (#18176112)
    Remember what calculators and computers looked like 20 years ago? In a couple of decades we'll be looking at these pictures and laughing ourselves silly at the description 'portable'.
    • by gardyloo (512791) on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @09:37PM (#18176128)
      Insightful. But it can go the other way: Many laptops these days are more like boat anchors. Well, the ones running Vista, anyway.
    • Ever read a Hardy Boys [wikipedia.org] book?
    • by xeoron (639412)
      Would be interesting to have such a device in a lighter form that could scan something and inform a person if it is safely eatable or not; it would be a must have for survival package.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Remember what calculators and computers looked like 20 years ago? In a couple of decades we'll be...laughing ourselves silly at the description 'portable'.

      Har, point taken, but you've gotta be kidding about calculators getting smaller. 25 years ago, I bought a Casio scientific calculator for $39. It was nearly credit-card sized and got me through somewhere between 100 and 160 semester credits of science and math, no sweat. I carried it in my pocket for years and only had to change the batteries once or t

    • by fermion (181285)
      Not a good comparison. 20 years ago, this was the calculator [hpmuseum.org], which is pretty similar to what we use today. Even 25 years ago, the calculator [hpmuseum.org] was a significantly powerful computing machine capable of mass storage, and still fit in a pocket. To get to really massive machines, one has to go back to the pre transistor days, when the mechanical machines were 40 pounds.
    • You used to be able to get desktop scanning electron microscopes. These were not popular at the time (1970's) - you wanted a big vacuum pump or you waited ages before you could look at anything, and the electronics usually meant that the thing was pretty huge. The resolution was nothing like the big SEMS, but it was still better than anything optical, and the depth of field was might greater.

      If you replace the diffusion vacuum pump and rotary backing pump with a modern turbomolecular pump, then you don't

    • 20 years ago, my computer wasn't much larger than my keyboard is today.
  • Not to say it wasn't convent to have a computer with a handle.

    That being said, I wonder how hard it would be to miniaturize this kind of scanning technology. There is a real need for smaller computers, but is there a real need for mass-produced mass spectrometers?
    • by shaitand (626655)
      Now no. That is a product that must become available before common household applications come to light. As long as it costs $50+ they won't be used much so this has a long way to go. If they are mass produced in a lightweight handheld version with an idiotified interface then I can see this being used all over the place.
      • by Fishead (658061)
        $50+? I am short of disposable income right now, but I could sure come up with fifty-bucks real fast if I found a mass spectrometer for that much! Heck, would prolly be able to come up with a couple hundred bucks just for the coolness factor of having a hand-held mass spectrometer. Not sure what I would use it for, but I could probably find a use for it... like convincing the wife that my shirt is still good for a couple more days.

        Ebay has several in the thousands, and one for $51 right now... gonna have
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by rednip (186217) *

      but is there a real need for mass-produced mass spectrometers?

      Never get ripped off buying blow again! Yeah!

      Also, the next cop who busts me might find it useful for testing my 'stash' without destroying it. Farmers could do soil tests out in the field. Ambulance crews could use it for quick diagnosis. A school could have one to transfer between the science classes. And of course Homeland security will buy these by the dozen (* as long as there is a couple good Republican donors on the company's board)

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      " real need for mass-produced mass spectrometers?"

      Police, airport security, and military applications spring to mind easily. The article did point out that they could detect cocaine residues. Other drugs, and explosives are just as easy I'm sure. I wonder what the range is?
    • by stmfreak (230369)
      There is a real need for smaller computers, but is there a real need for mass-produced mass spectrometers?

      I'd buy one.

      I'd use it when eating out to test for bacteria, virii and other contaminants.

      I'd use it at home to analyze the paint on my walls and products for lead, mercury or other poisons I don't want in my house.

      I'd use it on my used engine oil to determine levels of wear.

      I'd use it on my kids pee and clothing to see what they've been up to.

      I'm sure I'd find other uses for it until I couldn't imagine
      • by Schemat1c (464768)

        I'd use it on my kids pee and clothing to see what they've been up to.
        What a wonderful way to build trust with your kids.
      • ... and once a day, my papa holds this metal cylinder (vis a vis Star Trek) near me while I pee and then he goes to checks out my dirty underwear. But he says it is for my own good... so it's ok.

        Yeah, that'll be lots of fun to explain to Social Services.

        LOL

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      I doubt there could be quite as much of a need for smaller mass spec than there is for smaller computers, but I think applications will definitely be found for man-portable mass spec as these devices become smaller and more robust. One of these would allow for rapid trace chemical analysis in the field instead of collecting samples and taking them back to the lab (or to what before counted as "portable," an MS that could fit in a van). I think something like this would be great for lab analysis as well.
    • by rifter (147452)

      There is a real need for smaller computers, but is there a real need for mass-produced mass spectrometers?

      That statement reminds me of the execs from HP who exclaimed "what would an ordinary person want with a computer?" And the DEC exec who said that there was only a market for about 6 computers in the whole world.

      There are a variety of uses for such a device in the home which spring to mind immediately, and, like the computer, more will be found as people gain access to the devices. It wasn't long ago

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @09:44PM (#18176188)
    the boston police should be happy about this
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by shigelojoe (590080)
      I don't know, I don't think it would be a good idea to send a 20-pound package to the Boston police marked "Warning: Sensitive Electronics".
    • by tchdab1 (164848) on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @10:38PM (#18176558) Homepage
      >>the boston police should be happy about this

      Why, does it also detect portable lighting displays?
      • by RyoShin (610051)
        I'm imagining a Futurama or Family Guy segment where someone has created a simple bomb detector for the mass populace, which has five easy to understand levels:
        • Firecracker
        • Cherry Bomb
        • Building Buster
        • Holy Shit, it's a nuke
        • Portable Lighting Display*
        * Works within Boston city limits only
    • by Lord Ender (156273) on Wednesday February 28, 2007 @01:32AM (#18177802) Homepage

      the boston police should be happy about this


      Sergeant: Sir, according to this device, the cartoon character is made of plastic. If I remember my extensive training at community college correctly, bombs can be made of plastic explosives. I recommend we shut down the city and destroy all the cartoon characters at great expense to the taxpayers.

      Mayor: Sergeant, why waste all the taxpayer's time and money on a few lamps?

      Sergeant: Cause fuck em, that's why.

      Mayor: Excellent.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @09:49PM (#18176238)
    IGEN (now called Bioveris) is a biotech in MD that licenced the Tricorder (R) name from Paramount for their product. PDF list o products [bioveris.com]

    and it detects

    • E. coli
    • Salmonella
    • Listeria
    • Cryptosporidium
    • Botulinum Neurotoxin A & B , E & F
    • Staph A
    • Staph B
    • Ricin
    • Anthrax
    • by Dunbal (464142)
      licenced the Tricorder (R) name from Paramount

            All they have to do is call it a Tri-quarter and viola, problem solved ;)
  • The weight (Score:5, Funny)

    by hack slash (1064002) on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @09:54PM (#18176292)
    After carrying one of those around all day with a shoulder strap you'd welcome a Vulcan nerve pinch to ease the pain.
  • by bendodge (998616) <[bendodge] [at] [bsgprogrammers.com]> on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @09:56PM (#18176304) Homepage Journal
    This does indeed have enormous potential. But - how many million does it cost?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @09:57PM (#18176312)
    Spock: It looks like a toaster Jim.
    Jim: Spock...what's a toaster?
    Spock: It was a early 21st century tool for draining primitive power sources.
    Jim: Why would they need such a tool?
    Spock: The existence of such a tool defies logic Jim.
    Dr. McCoy: YOU VILE EARTH BASHING VULCAN. Everything that was made by pre-space fairing human defies logic.
    Dr. McCoy: I was used to prepare food, YOU POINTY-EARED AUTOMATON.

    Jim: Oh look...toast
  • Wouldn't that be a Bi-corder rather than a Tri-corder?

    I'm holding out for the next generation.
  • by Flailmonkey (1018430) on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @10:56PM (#18176706)

    While it is a new design, and has different features, this is in fact not the first tricorder that has been made.

    http://www.stim.com/Stim-x/0996September/Sparky/tr icorder.html [stim.com] talks about the very first "tricorder," but it doesn't look like it was very successful. Maybe Purdue's device will stick around longer.

    By the way, something that is very interesting to note is that Gene Roddenberry allows anyone who creates devices like the ones in Star Trek (and presumably its variations) can use the names used in the show. Get to work all you Trekkie engineers!

  • OK, but .. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by BigLug (411125)

    ...allowing chemical composition to be determined outside of a vacuum chamber. Purdue suggests this could be useful for everything from detecting explosive substances or cancer to predicting disease.
    OK, but if we use this, can we get the chemical composition of Coke or KFC? From there, we should be able to determine the recipe or the 11 Secret Herbs and Spices .. right?
    • by JoshJ (1009085)
      Well, yes, but you won't get it in a cooking recipe form.
      Consider an apple- you'd get things like "fructose", "sodium", etc. You wouldn't point it at an apple and get "apple". It'd take a lot more effort to do what you suggest than you think.
      • Not really. Create a database of natural items like "apple" and "pear" and "banana" and have it contain the average readings. Then when these readings come up, list the possible objects it could be.
  • It's no surprise to me that such a scanning device is developed. And like any new technology, it is always just the beginning.

    After all, We have the quantum computer, beginning to master quantum entanglement for teleportation, tractor beam, and last but not least, Geordi's visor to allow blind people to see.

    What we need next is a energy based weapon and energy shield.
  • *sigh*
    Trying to replicate trek tech is a complete waste of human resources until we find/manufacture dilithium crystals. Why the heck is NASA wasting my tax money on shuttle replacement parts?!? It's all about dilithium!
    • by KillerBob (217953)

      *sigh*
      Trying to replicate trek tech is a complete waste of human resources until we find/manufacture dilithium crystals. Why the heck is NASA wasting my tax money on shuttle replacement parts?!? It's all about dilithium!

      Really? Ever hear of a cell phone? How about automatic doors that open when you approach?

      I can think of a very good documentary [imdb.com] you should watch if you think that trying to replicate Star Trek technology is a waste of time.

      Interestingly, like the first cell phones, it also weighs in at a hef

      • No, you misunderstood. I'm all for replicating trek tech but we need to do it in the right order. Without interstellar space travel everything else is just gadgetry. And as everyone knows, without dilithium crystals it aint gonna happen. Find that first, then work on tricorders, special space fabric, mod boots that look so cool and whatever else you want.
        I only hold out two exceptions.
        1) Holodeck. I would like one of these as soon as possible.
        2) Replicator technology. This may in fact be the real key.
  • there's been a fun emulator for Palm for years:
    Jeff Jetton's Tricorder Palm site [jeffjetton.com]

    the colour one runs fine on my Palm T3 despite the program being written for pre Arm processors
  • I have found the rapid proliferation of this story across the web really funny. This same lab and this same device have been featured several times on PhysOrg but the moment the word "tricorder" is thrown out there it gets instant net popularity!

    My buddy who works in the lab responds [vdov.net] and is available to answer questions on his website. The one that has been killing me is the "why does it have to be so big" question. For the love of G-D they condensed a gigantic mass spec into the size of a PC case. T

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