The European Space Agency (ESA) has revealed that a laser device developed to measure carbon on Mars could soon be used here on Earth to detect counterfeit food.
Today’s equipment is large, bulky and stationary. Samples of, say, polluted soil must be collected in the field, put in a flask and brought to the lab for testing – clearly unsuitable for space testing.
But the new laser ‘isotope ratio-meter’ from RAL Space could change that.
Thanks to its small, lightweight, robust, highly accurate lasers, the device could be sent into space to look for trace amounts of gas in very small samples.
“You take a laser, whose optical frequency or ‘colour’ can be continuously adjusted, beam it at a gas sample, and detect the level passing through the gas,” explained Dr Damien Weidmann, Laser Spectroscopy Team Leader at RAL Space.
As the laser colour changes, the light passes straight through the sample until it reaches a particular frequency, specific to the isotopic gas, that 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.”
Through an ESA program, Weidmann and his colleagues have been able to demonstrate that the laser can quickly root out counterfeit food. Fake honey made using sugar, for example, would be detected by the laser by scanning the carbon dioxide released from burning only a few milligrams of the product. Likewise, counterfeit olive oil and chocolate could also be detected.
Though Weidmann said it was important for his project to attract interest from industry, sending the laser to Mars is his real goal.
“I wanted to develop this to help gather evidence as to whether or not there was life on Mars,” said Weidmann.
Weidmann stated that using the laser to measure carbon isotopic ratios in methane on Mars could help determine where the hydrocarbon came from.
“If it’s bacterial in origin, it would mean a form of life occurred on Mars,” he added.