Saturday, March 11, 2006

Zap! instant material ID

First that article about the Z machine...and now this.... We are indeed living in the future. This reminds me more than a little of Tom Swift Jr.'s Spectroscope...

Imagine you need to find out what something's made of. Maybe a vial of a powdery substance. Maybe a plant. Maybe a mineral. Maybe a biopsy. Maybe...anything.

Imagine a device the size of a cell phone. A tiny laser from it shines on a substance and in ten seconds it tells you what the substance is.

Oh, you say, that's a Star Trek Tricorder. Pure science fiction!

I'd have agreed with you until tonite. A slightly larger prototype of this device is called a non-destructive, portable Raman Spectrograph. The cell-phone-sized model due out in June is hoped to be $2000-$5000. NASA is planning to use one on it's 2009 Mars mission.

The spectra detected by this device is caused by quantum effects so complex that they cannot be computed, so a specimen's spectra has to be compared to a pre-scanned spectra database. The folks behind this hope to have the spectra of everything on Earth on file within six years. Money for this catalogue is coming from Mike Scott, founding president of Apple Computers, who was looking for a way to non-destructively analyze his world-class gem collection.

The database already has 700 minerals in it, and the Miami police department supposedly has 220,000 drug spectra already scanned. As a demonstration, the chemist who's the brain behind this, M. Bonner Denton, can take his device and in ten seconds identify the powder in a plastic vial of Tylenol, as well as the type of plastic in the vial.

(By the way, Denton is also the fastest prof in the west"...In 1964 and 1965, he won the American Hot Rod Association's national drag racing championships in the unlimited modified sports car category...")

According to the interview, things that can be identified include plants from their leaves, animals from their skins, and even breast cancer cells!

I was hoping to be asleep by now, but I find stuff like this awakens a sense of wonder that keeps me up late.


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