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Purdue University makes Star Trek ‘tricorder’ close to a reality

R. Graham Cooks, Henry B. Hass Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, from Purdue University and Thalappil Pradeep, a professor of chemistry, at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras announced their developments in the miniaturization of mass spectrometers that bode for making something like the Star Trek “tricorder” a reality at the Purdue University website on March 25, 2014.

Isotopic pattern of a peptide. Mass spectrum recorded by Q-TOF mass spectrometer.
Isotopic pattern of a peptide. Mass spectrum recorded by Q-TOF mass spectrometer.Maciej Kotliński I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation.

The researchers developed a new sampling method that requires that a minimal amount of sample be placed on paper that contains an eluting solvent. The sample molecules are extracted from the paper as ions by a low voltage electric source. The ions are then vacuumed into the mass spectrometer analysis chamber.

The electric field necessary for ionization is created by a sampling paper that contains carbon nanotubes.

The nanotubes increase the rate of conversion of electricity to a usable electric field that is equivalent to 10 million volts per centimeter.

The low energy requirements make the mass spectrometer portable and capable of being powered by a battery. The nanotube sampling system further reduces the size of the device and eliminates any background noise.

This development will allow mass spectrometry, one of the most powerful chemical detection methods, to be available at a relatively low cost to physicians, farmers, and law enforcement. Body fluid analysis, potential pest control problems, detection of terrorist threats, and the elucidation of any chemical spill will be portable and extremely fast with the new device.