With over 2 Million apps available on each of Apple’s App Store and Google Play Store, smartphones have grown to become far more versatile than when they first burst onto the scene about a decade ago.
Now, that trend is evolving into a greater selection of smartphone attachments from miniature projectors to infrared cameras. So, may be then it should not be too surprising, that actual molecular scanners for smartphones are making their way to a smartphone near you.
But what the heck is a molecular scanner. Is it like one of those tricorder things that Mr. Data used in Star Trek? Well, actually yes, just as the fictional tricorder could give the crew of the enterprise useful information about their surroundings.
Real life molecular scanners analyze the chemical makeup of objects without the need for big expensive lab equipment or restraining orders. You see, chemicals with a different molecular structure absorbs and reflect light in different ways due to electrons in those molecules existing different energy states.
It’s been a long time since you took high school chemistry class and you forgot all this stuff, but gist of it is that a handheld molecular scanner fires a light beam in the near-infrared spectrum, which is used because it’s higher frequency can penetrate further into objects then lower energy far infrared or radio waves.
Once the infrared light hits the object, you want to scan, that object will absorb certain wavelengths of light more strongly than others based on its chemical makeup, the light that is reflected back to the center is then analyzed to create what is essentially a chemical fingerprint.
Based on how strongly or weakly each wavelength of light is reflected, this kind of scanning more formally called near-infrared spectroscopy or “NIRS” is used for tons of cool applications in medicine.
NIRS can analyze everything from oxygen saturation in blood in patients with cardiac issues to brain activity by determining haemoglobin concentrations in the brain, all without the need to slice anybody open.
But if you are not a doctor and you are interested in getting your hands on the smartphone model which I mentioned in the beginning, consumer physics has come out with a personal molecular scanner called “SCIO”. Which mimics some of the industrial applications of NIRS such as analyzing agricultural products and pharmaceuticals.
But what does this mean for you? Well, consumer physics is pitching more everyday uses for the SCIO as well, like scanning food and having nutritional information pop up on screen. Since, supermarkets typically don’t stick calorie labels on ribeye steaks or avocados.
If you want to take the NIRS for nutrition angle a bit further, you could point this gadget at yourself and it would give you a body fat percentage, so you can feel proud or hate yourself accordingly. They have also announced that there will be support for drug identification from right out of the box.
And don’t misunderstand medicinal drugs with those kinds of drugs, so don’t expect the cops to carry them around right away. It is designed more for over the counter and prescription medicines, so you can tell exactly what is in them.
Though, since there are also features for developers, you might be able to test other objects for authenticity in the future. If this particular product takes off we might see more consumer molecular scanners from other companies. Hopefully for less than consumer physics is current $300 asking price.
But do keep in mind that NIRS is not meant to be a super high precision method of chemical analysis, it sacrifices some degree of accuracy for speed and ease of use.
And while this probably won’t matter much to general consumers, it means that I wouldn’t bring it into the lab and take its reading as gospel, if you are preparing your Ph.D dissertation in chemistry.
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