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Indiana University Scientists Developing Portable, User-Friendly Spectrometer

Indiana University scientists have developed what they said is a smaller and more accurate version of a common tool used to analyze unknown solutions. However, the device is still a long way from practical use.

Right now the idea of IU chemistry professor Gary Hieftje’s solution electrode spectrometer in use at any hospital, let alone carried by scientists into the field, seems unimaginable.

Hieftje’s solution electrode spectrometer looks like a tiny garden fountain attached to a miniature sump pump that is powered by a car battery. The information produced by the spectrometer comes in the form of brightly-colored lights that must be interpreted by a machine about the size of a large video cassette player. However, Hieftje said his device has so much potential, he is tempted to start a small business to market it himself.

“I can envision the whole thing being extremely small,” Hieftje said. “All we really need is a small pump to pump the sample solution, a little dish for the waste reservoir and a modest power supply.”

Hieftje said the system to measure the device’s light emissions could be small enough to fit inside a laptop computer.

The device works by sending a charge between two electrodes, a solid electrode and a second one placed in the solution scientists wish to analyze. Within the solution, the atoms freed by the jolt become excited, which allows scientists to determine the type and number of each atom present, based on the color and intensity of the glow they emit.

Indiana University chemistry department associate scientist Steve Ray, who worked with Hieftje’s team to create the spectrometer, said the focus is now on transforming the project from the academic world into a useable product in the marketplace.

“This is a very interesting job,” Ray said. “Everything that we do is new, from invention to demonstration, and then we hand it off, ideally to some company that’s willing to take advantage of that demonstration and turn it into a marketable product.”

Ray said the device would be ideal for environmental science field work, medical testing or even crime scene investigation.

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