Public Lab DIY Spectrometry Kit

Anurag M

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A spectrometer may not sound like what you wanted for your birthday, but it's a ubiquitous tool for scientists to identify unknown materials, like oil spill residue or coal tar in urban waterways. But they cost thousands of dollars and are hard to use -- so we've designed our own.

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This open hardware kit costs only $35, but has a range of more than 400-900 nanometers, and a resolution of as high as 3 nm. A spectrometer is essentially a tool to measure the colors absorbed by a material. You can construct this one yourself from a piece of a DVD-R, black paper, a VHS box, and an HD USB webcam.

We've also created open source software (spectralworkbench.org) to collect, analyze, compare, and share calibrated spectral data. We've even made an experimental version which converts your cellphone into a spectrometer (see rewards)!

Public Lab community members have used this new tool to identify dyes in "free and clear" laundry detergent, to test grow lamps, and to analyze wines.

Now we need your help in collecting data to build a Wikipedia-style library of open source spectra, and to refine and improve sample collection and analysis techniques. We imagine a kind of "SHAZAM for materials" which can help to investigate chemical spills, diagnose crop diseases, identify contaminants in household products, and even analyze olive oil, coffee, and homebrew beer.

Public Lab is an open community (join now!) which investigates environmental issues with DIY tools. You might have heard about our first big project to document the BP oil spill using aerial photos from kites and balloons and our balloon mapping kits Kickstarter. Since then we've been working on new ways to ID contamination on the cheap. We hope you'll join us in taking the next step!

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