Startrek comes to Purdue University

May 18, 2012

As I mention on my web site, I have written a number of marketing reports over the years on a range of topics. Most of these reports describe various companies, their business strategies, their products and outlooks for the industries which are profiled. I frequently interview scientists and members of the business community, as I did in a report published last year on mass spectrometry ( Perhaps the most exciting encounter was with R. Graham Cooks, a professor at Purdue University.

 Cooks described to me an amazing advance in mass spectrometry technology that he and his students are building, a hand-held device that can identify molecules from a distance. Ordinarily mass spec analysis requires that a sample be introduced into a vacuum chamber where it is ionized and its precise molecular weight is measured by deflecting the molecule through a magnetic field. Since no two large protein molecules have exactly the same molecular weight, the data can be fed into a computer which identifies the sample.

 The devices being developed by the Cooks group employs desorption electrospray ionization or DESI, in which a solution is electrosprayed on a sample from a distance and molecules, dissolved in the solvent, are picked up by a handheld mass spectrometer which can identify them.

 It’s easy to imagine the applications of a device that would be the size of the “Tricorder” on Star Trek, and could be miniaturized to the size of a cell phone. Medical diagnosis, food safety testing, quality control in manufacturing, environmental monitoring, airport security, the list is endless; all carried out rapidly and in the field.

 Cooks believes that such devices could someday be cheap and ubiquitous; you can imagine checking out food quality at your local supermarket or water contamination in your swimming pool. Instantaneous, and practically cost free!

 I asked Cooks when he thought such devices will be available in the marketplace, I guessed 10 years, but he cut that number in half.

 It’s difficult to exaggerate the transformative effect that such devices will have on society.

I will be meeting with Cooks and his colleagues in Purdue in November and will bring readers of this blog up to date on the the group’s latest developments.



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