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Sci-Fi Science

Purdue Unveils a Tricorder 177

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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  • 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 rednip ( 186217 ) * on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @10:02PM (#18176360) Journal

    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)

  • by Original Replica ( 908688 ) on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @10:04PM (#18176372) Journal
    " 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 Dunbal ( 464142 ) on Tuesday February 27, 2007 @10:51PM (#18176638)
    why do these things have to be so large in the first place. Anyone in the know point me to a good explanation of how these work?

          Here [wikipedia.org] for some vague info on how a spectrometer works. Basically you have to turn the stuff to gas (so you need a heating unit), then you have to ionize it, then you shove the whole lot into a magnetic field of known strength.

          Since the degree of deflection of a particle when it passes through the magnetic field is proportional to a) charge and b) mass of the particle, what you end up measuring is a series of peaks at certain points on a graph. This info (when compared to charts of known compounds) lets you know the composition of the substance you tested. That's the way it was at the beginning.

          Then someone said why don't we just stream the particles from a homogenized sample, and vary the strength of the magnetic field. That way we simplify our detection part of the equipmet.

          This is a very general idea of the principles, obviously you could spend years learning all the techniques, and I haven't been in a lab for a while. At the beginning all we could work out was the types of elements involved in a compound, and empirical formulae. The separation and ionization techniques have been refined somewhat, and now we can compare different molecules instead of atoms, which helps a great deal in figuring out what we're looking at.

          Getting back to your question, the unit invariably has to be a bit bulky since you need a) a powerful magnet and b) an adequate distance to "catch" all the particles you are interested in.
  • 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."

Neutrinos have bad breadth.