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NIST Working On "Deathalyzer" 95

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the welcome-humans-i-am-ready-for-you dept.
coondoggie writes to mention that a new optical technique for sensing small amounts of molecules in a person's breath has been developed by a researcher for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The goal is to create a fast, low-cost method for detecting disease. "In this approach, NIST researchers analyze human breath with 'frequency combs,' which are generated by a laser specially designed to produce a series of very short, equally spaced pulses of light. Each pulse may be only a few million billionths of a second long. The laser generates light as a series of very narrow frequency peaks equally spaced, like the teeth of a comb, across a broad spectrum."
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NIST Working On "Deathalyzer"

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  • by Wandering Wombat (531833) <mightyjalapeno.gmail@com> on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @02:39PM (#22491430) Homepage Journal
    ... the machine keeps declaring that everyone has "Stupidity"...
  • by aquatone282 (905179) * on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @02:43PM (#22491502)

    . . . this morning - I think he's gonna die real soon.

  • by ackthpt (218170) on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @02:46PM (#22491562) Homepage Journal
    I can see how this could affect premiums, let alone offerings.

    "None for you, deathbreath!"
    • by Wandering Wombat (531833) <mightyjalapeno.gmail@com> on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @02:49PM (#22491636) Homepage Journal
      Good point....

      Insurer: Ok, Mr Smith, let's have a little puff here...
      *puffpuff*
      Insurer: Ooooh, that's not good... according to this you need to pay $435 per month. Sorry, blame technology.
      • Sadly enough, many people would be THRILLED to pay only $435 a month.
      • $435/month? That is probably a young healthy non-smoker. When I last went to buy insurance, I admitted to having sleep apnea. I was immediately told there would be a 3 year pre-existing condition clause on apnea treatment and an automatic 15% premium increase. The sad thing is it was still a bargain and I accepted the conditions.
      • by maxume (22995)
        You are talking about a medical cost sharing program.

        Tying costs to risk is a good thing in insurance.
    • by Fyz (581804)
      [flamebait]
      America: These readings don't look so hot. We're going to have to charge you everything you own!

      Europe: These readings don't look so hot. We're going to have to get you some help immediately!
      [/flamebait]
      • This is why we need an Obama presidency. As president, he'd support a healthcare bill and not get the passage screwed up like Hillary did in the 90s.
  • Mostly Dead (Score:5, Funny)

    by DamienRBlack (1165691) on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @02:47PM (#22491588)
    Officer: I'm sorry sir, the deathalyzer says you're too far over the legal 'dead' limit to be driving. What do you have to say for yourself?

    Passenger: But officer, he can't say anything he's dead.

    Officer: Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do.

    Passenger: What's that?

    Officer: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.
    • Michael Jordon: Ask Mr. Puckett if I should bring it nose first or tail first?
      Kate Hellman: Michael he's dead.
      Michael Jordon: He is not dead.
      Kate Hellman: Yes he is.
      Michael Jordon: No he's not just ask him, ask him.
      Kate Hellman: Mr. Puckett, should he bring it in nose first or tail first?

      [pause]

      Michael Jordon: What did he say?
      Kate Hellman: [pounding Michael] Michael he's DEAD!!!
      Michael Jordon: He is not dead, he has gas! Haven't you heard of that? He's having a gas attack!
      Kate Hellman: Oh! [sighs]
      Michael Jo
    • No, he's just spending the year legally dead, for tax purposes...
  • I recall that it was fairly accurate too.
    • by Kuukai (865890)
      Yeah, the Death Clock. "It's occasionally off by a few seconds, what with free will and all."
  • Other applications? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TripMaster Monkey (862126) on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @02:51PM (#22491676)
    I wonder how well this technology could be adapted for other applications, such as detecting contraband in travelers' luggage, or detecting explosives. Perhaps for detecting survivors or casualties during disasters?

    Could we be seeing the demise of the drug/bomb sniffing dog with this new tech?
    • Demise? Or retirement? This thing takes no prisoners...

      Depending on cost, one obvious potential use I can see for it is for breath testing for alcohol (instead of this method [mothership.co.nz]).

    • Could we be seeing the demise of the drug/bomb sniffing dog with this new tech?

      Maybe. But maybe we'll just see the rise of the electronic sniffing machines that can easily be surreptitiously programmed to report falsified findings, kinda like electronic voting machines.
    • .. work on parrots?
      • More importantly, does it work on Attila The Hun (or as he's known to his friends - "The") or Alexander The Great?

        Please, consider the advantages of owning a Hunalyzer, or Alexander The Greathalyzer.
  • To Blathe! (Score:5, Funny)

    by dsginter (104154) on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @02:54PM (#22491722)
    Will this deathalizer tell me if someone is only mostly dead?
  • few thousandths? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MyNymWasTaken (879908) on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @02:54PM (#22491732)

    few million billionths

    Is that a few thousandths or a few quadrillionths?
    • by mapkinase (958129)
      10<superscript>-15</superscript> would have worked if...
    • >> few million billionths


      > Is that a few thousandths or a few quadrillionths?


      Yea... welcome to English!

      Actually, the author was just trying to impress us with his "illions" of high-tech words.

    • TFA

      Each pulse may be only a few millionth billionths of a second long.


      a few femtoseconds.

  • by nedburns (1238162) on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @02:57PM (#22491790)
    They better be careful before someone sues for patent violation for detecting "old stench".

    The human nose can detect the particles accurately as you walk through a nursing home or hospital.
    • Re:Already exists (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Missing_dc (1074809) on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @05:13PM (#22493768)
      I wish I had not spent my mod points this morning, this one is not "troll"

          Its perfectly true, having woked at a hospital myself, I can often smell when someone has illnesses and you would be amazed at how many nurses can tell you what a person probably has just by the smell of the room. I've discussed this with many a pretty nurse in the cafeteria. (morbid, I know... it came with the job)
      • And could explain that cat that apparently always waited outside someone's room as they were about to die.. well, gives him a bit of plausible deniability in any case, sneaky little murdering bastard that he is..
  • by aldousd666 (640240) on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @02:58PM (#22491804) Journal
    Like marijuana or cocaine? Wasn't one of the primary complaints against legalizing marijuana from a law enforcement perspective the lack of ability to monitor the level of intoxication of a user? Well there you go. Hippies rejoice. It's a step toward your green [smoke] goal. Tree hugging anyone?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      While you are correct about the being able to "test" how intoxicated someone is with pot, I think it less of a matter of "How would we do it?" to more like "How can we test for inability to drive differently?".

      The breathalyzer HAS worked with alcohol intoxication, but rather than thinking about how we can adapt it to other things, the better approach, I would say, is to just test in a different way. After all, there could be multitudes of things, both legal and illegal, that can put you in a state w
  • "You reek of death, human" - Illidan
  • Science fiction becomes science fact again?
  • Dr. McCoy had one (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    So we'll be able to wave a flickering sensor over someone to get medical info? Seems familiar...
  • /. is slipping....a story about lasers and no sharks tag?!? Shocked I tell, shocked.
    • by PIPBoy3000 (619296) on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @03:15PM (#22492078)

      /. is slipping....a story about lasers and no sharks tag?!? Shocked I tell, shocked.
      They tried mounting a Deathalyzer on a shark, but the result was always that the subject would die within a few seconds.
      • Sounds like they've improved the targeting mechanism. Maybe someone should tell the US Navy before they shoot that missile.

        They tried mounting a Deathalyzer on a shark, but the result was always that the subject would die within a few seconds.

  • ....and find out your disease du jour.

    Is there a prize for guessing correctly, first? Like a reduction on your future insurance premiums?
  • I had a mate who wasn't drinking test positive on a couple of breathalizers, but a blood test came up negative. He was arrested and it shook him quite badly. This is a whole new way of ruining lives. I wonder how many heart attacks you can induce telling a person they're about to die?

    "The magic 8 ball says....." "you will live. Have a nice day!"
    "The magic 8 ball says....." "you will die. Sorry better luck next time. Please be sure to pay your bill immediately"
    • by Anonymous Coward
      I had a mate who wasn't drinking test positive on a couple of breathalizers, but a blood test came up negative. He was arrested and it shook him quite badly. This is a whole new way of ruining lives.

      Since you used the term 'mate' to describe your friend, I'll assume that you're perhaps in Australia???

      People who have diabetes (even mild forms that otherwise do not need insulin treatments) often exhale small amounts of acetone, as that is a byproduct of improper metabolism of sugars in diabetics. Acetone caus
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @03:19PM (#22492132)
    I somehow loaded Slashdot from a bizarro universe. It was gone by the time I refreshed it, but not before I got a screenshot... Here is my transcription (emphasis added)...
    --

    End of Zombie Menace in Sight? NIST Working On "Deathalyzer"
    Posted by ScuttleMonkey [slashdot.org] on Wednesday February 20, @01:36PM
    from the payback-time department

    coondoggie [networkworld.com] writes to mention that a new optical technique [networkworld.com] for sensing small amounts of death molecules in a persons breath has been developed by a researcher for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This technology might one day be used as a fast, low-cost method for detecting whether someone is a zombie.

    "In this approach, NIST researchers analyze human breath with 'frequency combs,' which are generated by a laser specially designed to produce a series of very short, equally spaced pulses of light. Each pulse may be only a few million billionths of a second long. The laser generates light as a series of very narrow frequency peaks equally spaced, like the teeth of a comb, across a broad spectrum."
    Could this mean the end of the zombie menace?
  • by bornwaysouth (1138751) on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @03:23PM (#22492210) Homepage
    The article is vague on how it works, but as a once upon a time chemical analyst (way way back), this sounds like it is doing the equivalent of an infra red scan, using rapid chopping the frequency the vibrations. Dunno. I just used the machines, I'm not a physicist. It may be a better way of doing it.

    But the concept of detecting for a whole bunch of compounds at once has been around for many decades, as is the idea that you can detect health and sickness states with it. The ideas all seemed to bog down in reality. Pattern detection relies an a massive reliable database. In the article, they focussed on asthma. As a (once) chemist, I noted that hydrogen peroxide was now hydro-peroxide, and the nitrite and nitrate ions were somehow volatile. Not show stoppers, but cause for questioning what they actually were detecting. And rather hi-tech compared to a cardboard peak flow meter.

    The social impact if it works is rather similar to gene scanning. If an employer tests applicants for jobs, then not only being a smoker can be detected. Maybe a whole bunch of disease risks. The individual risk increases may not be enough to diagnose a specific disease (so no use to a clinician), but a doubled risk of asthma, heart conditions etc would all ad up to a statistical bad risk. Life insurers also might like the idea.

    So you may find it threatening. On the other had, if you are healthy, why have high insurance premiums. Oh well. Definitive tests for disease have been invented before. And people very sharply fall into the Want-to know or Don't-tell-me camps. Having the info acquired under a form of blackmail makes for problems.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by repapetilto (1219852)
      Yea to me it looks like spectroscopy, except instead of first purifying the sample then dissolving it, its some sort of gas chromatography device that separates the different molecules for you (based on how much each type sticks to the walls), then you scan whatever absorption frequencies your looking for with the laser and compare the energy you detect with what the laser put out. Wherever there was absorption(depends on the frequency and molecule) will tell you what was in there by comparing the spectra w
    • I noted that hydrogen peroxide was now hydro-peroxide, and the nitrite and nitrate ions were somehow volatile.

      I think they were talking about the hydroperoxide radical ( -OOH ), either free or attached to some other radical to form a molecule. Also they said "nitrites" and "nitrates" - molecules rather than the free radical.

      Some of these puppies are volatile. Others may end up in breath due to their inclusions in the aerosols formed when the exhalations pick up droplets - which rapidly evaporate in the dry environment of the test equipment's nitrogen carrier gas - or microscopic bits of debris.

      Production of free

      • Some of these puppies are volatile. Others may end up in breath due to their inclusions in the aerosols formed when the exhalations pick up droplets - which rapidly evaporate in the dry environment of the test equipment's nitrogen carrier gas - or microscopic bits of debris.

        Also: Once you have an ionic molecule floating in the test cell, the energy of the laser photons should kick the ions apart - allowing them to be analyzed separately. This will simplify the analysis because the instrument will be looking for the signatures of a small number of ions rather than the much larger number of their combinations.

    • The article is vague on how it works, but as a once upon a time chemical analyst (way way back), this sounds like it is doing the equivalent of an infra red scan, using rapid chopping the frequency the vibrations.

      The fourier transform of a train of identical pulses is a "comb" - a series of sharp, equally-spaced frequencies where the spacing (difference in frequency between consecutive component "colors") is the same as the repetition rate of the pulse train.

      A laser consists of a resonant cavity and an amplifier (maybe plus some optional extras).

      The cavity, like a guitar string, has a SET of equally-spaced resonances ("resonance modes"), all those frequencies where a round trip of a wave is an exact integer number

    • Thanks for the various explanations. I really like technology. I last touched a flask at the end of the last millennium, and it looks like the science has really progressed. I was more into GC mass-spectrometry, and I do not care what they say about it being the gold standard (then). At the part per billion level, it was prone to false positives. We just loved finding co-metabolites to confirm the diagnosis and reduce our paranoia. (It was a regulatory lab.)

      So very sensitive pattern matching was a dream, se
  • Is this going to be as accurate as a breathalyzer?

    Don't hold your breath.
  • by mawhin (635345) on Wednesday February 20, 2008 @03:46PM (#22492496)
    I'm sure we're many of us familiar with the story of a few months back about the nursing home dog (perhaps cat?) that appeared to be able to smell impending fatality amongst the residents. And I personally will not forget the smell of cancer on my father's breath before he died early.

    It's not beyond reason that the chemical composition of the breath might be detectably altered by disease. Nor that sensitive enough equipment might be able to detect this early and cheaply enough to be usable as a screening method.

    In the hands of medics, sworn to confidentiality, this could help avoid considerable suffering and early, pointless death.

    I don't see it as a threat to civil liberties. It's like the hypodermic. It's been used for many years as a tool in the psychiatric opression of political dissidents, been used to murder, been used to torture and so on and so forth.

    But would you honestly rather the hypodermic had never existed? Of course not.

    A hammer can be used to hurt you. Would you have them banned?

    Personally, I'm hopeful about this one.
  • About the average Slashdot poster?

    "I'm sorry sir, but we've determined that you've been dead for 3 years."
  • Today death breath, tomorrow DEATH EATERS! Where's Harry Potter when you need him?
  • Many of the possibilities have already been mentioned. In particular, the nursing home cat that knew which patients were about to die. I've also heard stories of dogs that can smell cancer. I've observed dogs that recognize pregnancy even before the test. The problem with using animals, though, is that the training is expensive and difficult. You can't have a reliable cancer smelling dog at every doctor's office for annual screenings. But you can have a device.

    Of course, there are always the privacy i
  • Dead Collector: Bring out yer dead! [Hits gong]
    Large Man: Here's one.
    Dead Collector: Ninepence.
    Old Man: I'm not dead!
    Dead Collector: What?
    Large Man: Nothing. Here's your ninepence.
    Old Man: I'm not dead!
    Dead Collector: 'Ere, he says he's not dead.
    Large Man: Yes he is.
    Large Man: Well, he will be soon, he's very ill.
    Old Man: I'm getting better!
    Large Man: No you're not, you'll be stone dead in a moment.
    Dead Collector: Well, I can't take him like that. It's against regulations.
    Old Man: I don't want to go on the
  • FIST Working on "Deathanal..."

    god that's so immature!
  • This may just be the closest we'll ever get to detecting Doom Particles!
  • The term "deathalyzer"'s similarity to the breathalyzer reminded me of a very funny situation I came across in my career as a police officer.

    While running a driver's license on a normal traffic stop, the computer came back with the message "Deceased." The photo on the license was obviously the driver, and our computers return the license photo with the records request, so I knew it wasn't a fake ID. So I went back and told him "Sir, I really don't know how to tell you this, but according to your license, yo

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