Analog Devices throws its weight behind spectrometer for consumers

SCiO Workshop-min

A partnership between Analog Devices and Israeli startup could finally bring to market hand-held scanners that can be pointed at food or medicine to detect what’s inside.

The spectrometer device, called SCiO, is made by Consumer Physics and uses a near-infrared beam of light to scan food, medications, and other substances to determine their makeup and send the results to a smartphone in 1.5 seconds.

Consumer Physics says that SCiO can measure nutritional characteristics such as calories, fat, and sugars, as well as the chemical composition of substances such as fuel and oil.

Such scanners are common tools in labs and universities, where they are used to test the purity and identity of substances. A user shines a light on an object, which will absorb some wavelengths and reflect back others.

The wavelengths that bounce back are measured and recorded. This process produces a molecular “fingerprint,” or unique identifier, that can be used to determine the molecules in a substance.

The devices can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but the SCiO version can be pre-ordered for $249. To dateSCiO has only been used by a couple of thousand developers and Consumer Physics’ early Kickstarter backers. It expects to ship SCiOs in July, according to its website.

Eventually, the partnership between Analog Devices and Consumer Physics hopes to shrink the device down to the size of a 3 millimeter chip that can be installed in smart devices.

“You can use it almost anywhere,” said Alain Guery, director of emerging business at Analog Devices. “This will revolutionize the world because now it will be very easy to know exactly what you have in front of you, whereas it used to be very time consuming.”

Guery said that in addition to smartphones and smartwatches, he sees miniaturized SCiO spectrometers being installed in home appliances, where they could test for deadly contaminants like bacteria, and smart water bottles that could detect whether what’s inside is safe to drink.

The partnership will give Consumer Physics, a startup whose viability has been called into question, access to Analog Devices’ more than 30 years of experience making semiconductors. Analog Devices went public in the late 1960s and today its chips can be found in millions of consumer products worldwide, including cars, smartphones, and personal computers.

SCiO’s critics say its small size sacrifices precision, and that the device will not be accurate enough to tell which molecule it’s looking at.

“The ability to resolve different features depends on the size of the spectrometers. In a small device it’s very hard to disperse the light to see all the frequencies there,” said Lawrence Ziegler, a near-infrared spectroscopist and professor at Boston University whose research has received funding from the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation.

“I don’t see how they would have enough specificity to make an identification,” he said.

His colleague, Shyamsunder Erramilli, a professor of physics and biomedical engineering at Boston University’s Photonics Center, is a more hopeful.

He said SCiO could feasibly identify molecules accurately if the companies manage to build a database of molecular “fingerprints.” This database must be so large as to contain multiple “fingerprints” of every single molecule a user could possibly scan.

That’s because spectroscopy works by comparing a molecule’s “fingerprint” against others to see which one it matches. “Everything comes down to the database and calibration,” Erramilli said.

He was doubtful, however, that SCiO, with its small size, could detect molecules in trace amounts, such as in the case of bacterial contamination.

SCiO’s developers have begun building what could become the largest database of spectral fingerprints ever, says Dror Sharon, chief executive and co-founder of Consumer Physics. He said that once SCiO hits the market, each scan by consumers will help build the database, making SCiO more powerful as time passes.

Globe correspondent Amanda Burke can be reached at amanda.burke@globe.com.
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