Indiana researchers develop real-life tricorder

Published 2 March 2007

Star Trek-inspired mass spectrometer weighs less than twenty pounds; analysis can be done on surfaces outside the vacuum chamber; system detects biomarkers and explosives with ease; two Indiana companies rush into the market

While we have not really reached the final frontier, some of the innovations from Star Trek have become reality. The famed ‘tricorder’ allowed the crew in the series to visit alien lands and analyze discovered chemical compounds or diagnose diseases. Now we can report that researchers at Purdue University have developed a similar system that allows them to do the same. The system is a miniature, portable version of a mass spectrometer and contains all similar functions. Whether or not Vulcanized rubber is involved, we cannot say.

A mass spectrometer works by breaking a piece of an object down in a vacuum chamber and analyzing the elements it contains. Yet mass spectrometers are typically heavy — 300 pound or more — and are not very fast. The new system created by the researchers weighs less than twenty pounds and can identify cocaine on $50 bills in less than one second. Based on a new technique called desorption electrospray ionization (DESI), the system does not require samples or a vacuum — ideal for for improving explosive residue scans at airports or searching for drugs in packages. “The key DESI innovation is performing the ionization step in the air or directly on surfaces outside of the mass spectrometer’s vacuum chamber,” said one of the researchers, noting that it also has the ability to detect biomarkers for diseases and cancers.

Investors take note: two companies, Indianapolis, Indiana-based Prosolia and West Lafeyette, Indiana-based Griffin Analytical Technologies are now commercializing the technique.

-read more in this university news release