Great Spock! Hand-held material analyzers are here

January 25, 2017

Max the Magnificent-January 25, 2017

I used to be glued to the television screen watching Star Trek (The Original Series) in the late-1960s. Since the show was set in the 2260s, it was easy to accept the futuristic technology on display, such as the tricorders wielded by science officer Spock and Doctor Leonard Horatio "Bones" McCoy.

The tricorder was a multifunction hand-held device used for scanning things, analyzing them, and recording data. I can’t recall how many times Spock would point his tricorder at something and use it to determine the most amazing, sometimes improbable, facts. In this video, for example, he managed to use it to measure the rate of cultural change of a civilization (hey, it all seemed to make sense back then).

The point is that we never really expected devices like tricorders to make an appearance in our lifetimes (people of my parents' generation never expected them to make an appearance at all). Fortunately, no one told the folks at Si-Ware Systems how impractical it would be to create the technology that would facilitate hand-held sensing and analysis devices, so they went ahead and did it anyway.

They started with their NeoSpectra modules, which they describe as being "around the same size as a fat deck of playing cards." Based on semiconductor fabrication techniques and MEMS technology, NeoSpectra modules provide compact, low-cost Fourier Transform near infrared (FT-NIR) spectral sensors.

These modules are used by embedded systems designers to create a wide variety of devices for use in markets ranging from agriculture to medical to oil and gas. Take the SoilCares Soil Scanner, for example. This boasts a NeoSpectra module at its core.

(Source: SoilCares)

All the farmer has to do is plunge the head of the Soil Scanner into a sample of soil to be presented with a wealth of information. In addition to determining the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium available in the soil, the Soil Scanner will also report such things as the soil's pH, electrical conductivity, and the level of organic matter it contains.

(Source: SoilCares)

Furthermore, the corresponding Soil Scanner app will provide a list of crops suitable for this particular soil in this particular geographical location, accompanied with lime and fertilizer recommendations and alternatives.

One of the more amazing things to me is how quickly developments in semiconductor and MEMS technologies allow devices to shrink. Machines that filled a room 20 years ago first shrank to the size of a refrigerator, then to something that could be wheeled around on a trolley, then to something that could be carried by hand, and -- more recently -- to something that can fit in a smartphone or smartwatch.

The same thing is happening with regard to low-cost NIR spectral sensors. For eaxmple, Si-Ware Systems has just announced the NeoSpectra Micro. This is a small, chip-scale, NIR spectral sensor that can be used to quickly analyze materials without the need to send samples to a lab, thereby enabling dramatic time and cost savings and providing accurate, actionable data in the home, in the field, or on the plant floor.

(Source: Si-Ware Systems)

Until now, spectroscopy and material analysis have been conspicuously absent from consumer applications due to size, form factor, and cost concerns. At 18 x 18mm and only 4mm thick, the NeoSpectra Micro changes all this. Presented in a self-contained package, the NeoSpectra Micro can be easily incorporated into consumer electronic products.

(Source: Si-Ware Systems)

I don’t think it will be long before we start to see this sort of scanning and analysis capability appearing in smartphones and even smart watches. Ideas keep on popping into my head, such as having always-on monitoring of things like carbon monoxide and smoke and suchlike.

One of my cousins in Canada has an extreme allergy to shellfish. Her response is so acute that she won’t eat anything from an outside establishment apart from one restaurant that is owned by her husband. This is because she cannot take the chance that any cooking pots and implements haven’t come into even the tiniest contact with shellfish. Even at her husband's restaurant, the chef keeps a separate set of pots and pans and plates and cutlery, just for her. Now, imagine if my cousin could simply wave her smartphone over a plate of food and be immediately informed if there was any trace of shellfish in it.

Similarly, suppose you are on a gluten-free diet. Wouldn’t it be handy to be able to wave your smartphone over a plate of food to be assured that it is, indeed, without gluten? What about people whose religion forbids them to eat certain foods like pork? Once again, it would be reassuring to be able to check that the food they were about to put into their mouths was indeed pork-free.

The more I think about this, the more applications spring to mind. I really believe that the uses of this type of sensing module are limited only by our imaginations. What applications do you think will be enabled by this technology?

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