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Chemists use expensive tools called spectrometers (there are several kinds) to analyze unknown solid or liquid samples. We are working on a cheap version which we hope to use to identify oil contamination in water and soil, as well as a range of other possible toxins.
Spectrometers can also be used to identify species of plants or crop diseases, assess plumes from smokestacks, and have many other applications.
What we perceive as a single color consists of multiple blended colors- just as green paint can be made from mixing yellow and blue paint. A spectrometer is a device that splits light into the various colors it is composed of, which we otherwise cannot distinguish with the naked eye. By viewing a substance through a spectrometer, one can distinguish the exact mixture of colors, which correspond to specific wavelengths of light, that make up the perceived color of the sample.
Make a spectrometer
The PLOTS spectrometer is a Do-it-Yourself tool made from simple materials:
- 4 1/8" x 8 3/8" stiff black card paper
- a clean DVD-R
- a webcam
- velcro, dark tape, a box cutter/x-acto knife
The DVD's tightly packed grooves act as a diffraction grating -- basically a prism. When light enters, the different wavelengths of light are bent to different degrees, forming a rainbow -- a spectrum.
Video spectrometer construction offers step-by-step instructions on making your own spectrometer. This design is released under the CERN Open Hardware License 1.1 (read agreement here). It features:
- around 400-900 nanometer range, maybe wider (what you can see with the naked eye, plus some infrared)
- 5-10 nm spectral resolution
- 20-30 samples per second
- ~ $10 in materials
- < 1 hour construction time
- Mac and Linux compatible, should work on Windows but untested
- open-source software
Using your spectrometer
One group of toxins common to fossil fuel contamination are PAHs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are generally carcinogenic.
Directions for using your spectrometer are in progress (please chip in to expand this documentation!) and can be found at:
Online spectral analysis
Along with the physical tool itself, the PLOTS team has also developed a software suite and [online spectrum sharing website](http://spectralworkbench.org] which allows anyone to upload their data and work with others to try to interpret it. These tools are early prototypes and we're looking for help developing them.
Finally, a FAQ with some insights about actually using your spectrometer can be found here:
Several older designs have been documented on this site. Guides have been made showing you how to make some of these; they include:
- plots-spectrometer-guide-small.pdf - by the PLOTS team for our workshop at the Whitney Museum
- Make a Spectrometer.pdf - by Alex McCarthy
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