February 12, 2013
New Laser Meant For Mars Can Spot Counterfeit Foods Here On Earth
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online
The European Space Agency (ESA) announced on Monday a new laser device developed to measure carbon isotopes on Mars may soon be used here on Earth to identify fake honey, olive oil, chocolate and other counterfeit foods.
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in England worked for several years to develop the new device, known as a laser isotope ratio-meter, by improving on older lasers that were large and heavy. The bulkiness of these conventional lasers meant samples had to be gathered and brought back to a lab for analysis.
RAL wanted to create a smaller, portable device that could be used in space to detect trace amounts of gasses from tiny samples.
“You take a laser, whose optical frequency or ℠color´ can be continuously adjusted, beam it at a gas sample, and detect the level passing through the gas,” explained Damien Weidmann, Laser Spectroscopy Team Leader at RAL Space.
As the laser color changes, the light passes straight through the sample until it reaches a certain frequency, specific to the isotopic gas, which is partially blocked.
“Each molecule, and each of its isotopic forms, has a unique fingerprint spectrum. If, on the other hand, you know what you are looking for, you can simply set the laser to the appropriate frequency.”
Although the new laser was designed for use in space, Weidmann and colleagues participated in an ESA-sponsored Technology Transfer Demonstration project, where they showed their small, lightweight laser could quickly detect counterfeit foods. The scientists used the device to identify fake honey concocted from sugar by simply laser-scanning the carbon dioxide released from burning a few milligrams of the product. Counterfeit olive oil and chocolate could also be detected.
Weidmann said while it is important his project attract commercial interest, sending the laser to Mars is his ultimate goal.
“I wanted to develop this to help gather evidence as to whether or not there was life on Mars,” he said.
The proportionality of different isotopes tells us about the history of the formation of the molecule, meaning the new laser could measure carbon isotopic ratios in methane on Mars to help determine the origins of the planet´s hydrocarbon.
“If it´s bacterial in origin, it would mean a form of life occurred on Mars.”
For now, having a new application for the laser as a counterfeit food detector is an exciting bonus to Weidmann´s work.
“One thing is to develop novel technology for a specific space scope. Another is to turn it into a viable system for use on Earth, in a completely different field and with different requirement.
“The demonstrator project made it possible for us to prove its potential and to attract the interest from a company that could take it and use it for a specific application on Earth.
“Taking the technology developed for planetary exploration down to Earth, it has turned out that it can provide interesting new methods for diagnostics based on analysis of carbon isotopes as one would look at in space,” Weidmann continued.
RAL Space partnered with a British firm, Protium MS, to develop the small, portable laser device to detect counterfeit foods.
“You take a food sample — a few milligrams of olive oil, chocolate, wheat or whatever — and you burn it,” Dr. Weidmann explained.
“As the sample burns, it releases carbon dioxide you test with the laser instrument.”
Based on those results, “you will know, in the case of olive oil, if it genuinely comes from Sicily or if it is a counterfeited fake.”
“Honey is the classic example,” said Protium director David Bell.
“It´s an expensive product to buy, but you can create a counterfeit product that looks very similar using sugar instead of bees.”
Future applications for the device include expanding its use to food safety.
“All indications are that lasers will be used more and more because they are so small and light. And the tests can help identify the geographical origin of food products and identify counterfeits with high accuracy.”