Chemical telephones

The folks at UCLA have come up with a way to use cell phones to test for allergens in food. And we're not talking looking it up in a database somewhere, we're talking an actual lab test, which tests the actual piece of food in front of you.

Potentially useful if you have a life-threatening allergy, such as to peanuts, the example used in their paper.

While this does use the camera built into the phone, as a lab test, it is more than just taking a picture. Specifically, it uses a colorimetric process to measure how much allergen is in the sample.

I've used colorimeters before, and they are generally quick and handy (and portable, if you buy the portable version of the reader). However, that "generally" is important. While I've used some colorimetric kits that only take 5 minutes, I've used some that take over half an hour, and that's not counting sample preparation time.

And all of those kits require sample preparation of some sort, adding chemicals, and waiting for the reaction to finish before measuring. Most of the stuff I tested required dilution of a water sample to bring it into the testing range. The peanut test described requires the sample to be finely ground and dissolved first, and is described as taking 20 minutes, not including grinding time.

The good kits come with either pre-measured chemicals or easy quantities of liquid chemicals to measure, such as with a standard pipette or a supplied dropper, to minimize test error. The reaction of the compound of interest with the added reagents causes a colour change, which the sensor (or camera) measures. Generally, at least for the kits I've used, the darker the colour, the more of the compound of interest is present. From the paper, it looks like the peanut test turns red.

Realistically, now that the photo processing and colour measurement has been sorted out, any pre-existing colorimetric kit could be adapted for cel phone use. But then, most people who might get these things for personal use would be more interested in allergens than the stuff I have tested for at work. Most people don't care all that much how much calcium is in their water, because it isn't a health issue.

(Ok, technically this one is almost year old, but I don't restrict myself to only talking about new discoveries.)