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New Spectrometer Could Help Turn Cell Phones Into Advanced Analytical Tools
May 7, 2019

Devices called spectrometers can detect dangerous chemicals based on a unique “fingerprint” of absorbed and emitted light. But these light-splitting instruments have long been both bulky and expensive, preventing their use outside the lab.

New compact and low-cost devices like this miniaturized spectrometer could help turn ordinary cellphones into advanced analytical tools. Photo courtesy of Zongfu Yu.

Now, according to information provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), engineers have developed a spectrometer that is so small and simple that it could integrate with the camera of a typical cell phone without sacrificing accuracy.

The researchers, led by senior author Zongfu Yu, the Dugald C. Jackson Assistant Professor and Vilas Associate in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UW-Madison, published a paper describing the devices in the journal Nature Communications.

“This is a compact, single-shot spectrometer that offers high resolution with low fabrication costs,” says Zhu Wang, a research assistant at UW-Madison and the first author on the paper.

The team’s devices, measuring just 200 micrometers on each side (roughly one-20th the area of a ballpoint pen tip) and delicate enough to lie directly on a sensor from a typical digital camera, also have an advanced capability called hyperspectral imaging, which collects information about each individual pixel in an image order to identify materials or detect specific objects amidst a complicated background.

That small size was possible because the researchers based their device on specially designed materials that forced incoming light to bounce back and forth several times before reaching the sensor. Those internal reflections elongated the path along which light traveled without adding bulk, boosting the devices’ resolution.

Now the team hopes to boost the device’s spectral resolution as well as the clarity and crispness of the images it captures. Those improvements could pave the way for even more enhanced sensors.

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