© ARIZONA DAILY
Star Trek explorers who analyzed objects with a miraculous
handheld device had nothing on a pair of UA scientists designing
their own version of a "tricorder" for a Mars mission.
Chemist M. Bonner Denton and geoscientist Robert Downs of the
University of Arizona are principal investigators on a $1.5 million
NASA-funded project to develop a Raman spectrometer slated for a
Back the rover up to the rock of your choice and the instrument
will bounce a laser beam off it and seconds later tell you the
rock's chemical composition, not unlike the instruments used in the
Star Trek TV series.
"We're building a tricorder, that's pretty much what we're
doing," Downs said. "And we've got the dream of someday making it
into a handheld instrument that could be used for a variety of
Lots of different methods are used to figure out what a solid or
liquid actually is, but most of them involve destroying the sample
or placing it in certain containers or media, Denton said.
A Raman spectrometer can analyze most samples by merely pointing
at them without sample preparation or modifying their form, he said.
The prototype Denton and Downs have been working on has already
been used to test the legitimacy of diamonds in rings of people at
the chemistry and geosciences department. Two of the diamonds in the
geosciences department turned out to be cubic zirconia, Downs said.
The Raman spectrometer could eventually be used by anyone who
wants to test the legitimacy of a solid or liquid. Gemologists
buying gems, pharmacists who want to know the purity of a drug, and
environmental workers who want to figure out what's in a 55-gallon
drum are just a few of the people who could benefit from the
technology, Denton said.
"We were working with the Environmental Protection Agency on this
because they could take it into the field for rogue dumpsites,"
Denton said. "If someone dumps a bunch of barrels containing toxic
waste in the desert, this is a device you could stick into those
barrels to find out what's in them."
The spectrometer works by shooting a laser beam at an object and
collecting the different rays of light that bounce back. The vast
majority of light gathered has a similar energy to that which the
laser sent out, but about one out of a million photons, or particles
of light, have a shifted frequency or color. These shifted photons
act as fingerprint for the object they're emitted from.
"It's almost like tapping a rock and listening to it ring,"
Denton said. "Each different mineral has a whole series of
complicated bands that are unique, and that's how we identify it."
See Thursday's Arizona Daily Star for the rest of this story.
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